Summit County nearly caught up with backlog after burning more than 2,000 slash piles in two months
Summit County got a break from the smoke over the holidays, but in the coming weeks, foresters will again be burning up some of the last slash piles that have dotted the landscape for years.
Those piles represent just a fraction of the roughly 10,000 acres the U.S. Forest Service has clear cut in Summit in the past decade to help hasten the forest’s recovery from the pine beetle epidemic, which reached its peak in the early 2000s.
In November and December alone, crews burned more 2,000 slash piles, compared with around 6,000 for the past two winters combined. A combination of favorable weather and funding availability allowed the Forest Service to make that push, and the agency is finally close to catching up with its backlog of pile burning needs.
“It was definitely a robust pace of burning,” said Bill Jackson, district ranger for the Dillon Ranger District of the White River National Forest. “I’ve got to hand it to our crews for taking advantage of the weather we had. It was not great conditions for skiing, but it was great for burning.”
To determine whether or not it’s safe to burn, the Forest Service considers snow coverage on the ground, fuel moisture and especially wind conditions, because the agency has to get smoke permits from the state before it can burn.
The smoke is unsightly and can create a lot of extra work for 911 dispatchers charged with fielding anxious calls from people worried about wildfires. But forest managers say this is an unavoidable reality of living in an unhealthy forest.
The mountain pine beetle ravaged Summit County starting in the mid-1990s, burrowing into young lodgepole pines and eventually killing them. Nearly every stand of the species in the county was affected, but the plague largely ran its course by 2013.
That left behind decades’ worth of remediation needs, and despite clearing thousands of acres of desiccated lodgepoles, the Forest Service still has years of remediation and management in the pipeline.
“We certainly have more to do,” Jackson said. “It feels good to get caught up (with pile burning), but there are absolutely more treatments that need to be done. It’s just a part of living in the forest.”
Most of the recently burned piles were located in the Mount Powell area north of Silverthorne, the Peaks and Miner’s Creek trails near Frisco, Ophir Mountain west of Farmer’s Korner, Tiger Road and Highway 9 in Breckenridge and the Highlands subdivision.
Last year, the Forest Service approved another management project near Keystone called the Lower Snake Vegetation Management Project, which will clear about 850 acres of beetle-killed trees.
Most of the trees the Forest Service cuts in Summit County get chipped and sent to a biomass plant in Gypsum. In some project areas, however, it’s impossible to bring in the equipment required to do that, so crews must simply make piles and wait to burn them later.
“Summit County is not flat, so we have quite a few areas that are just not accessible for that heavy equipment or don’t even have roads to them at all,” Jackson said.
Approximately 99 percent of Summit County’s population lives within the wildland-urban-interface. Those areas have particularly high risk of wildfires and greater difficulty fighting them, especially since roughly 80 percent of the county’s forests are made up of lodgepoles thick with standing dead widow makers.
In the past fire season, the Peak 2 and Tenderfoot 2 fires put that on vivid display, with fires burning in sight of major highways and less than a mile from homes.
One of the major goals of the Forest Service’s vegetation projects is to create defensible space near these areas by cutting away trees and creating firebreaks from which to battle an oncoming blaze.
But it’s just as important to improve the diversity of the forest. The pine beetle epidemic, after all, was exacerbated by low diversity and high concentrations of young lodegpoles.
“The more we create pockets of diversity, in both species and age, the more we’ll have a better, healthier forest in the future — that’s the long-term goal,” Jackson said.
The Forest Service is caught up on burn piles for now, but it’s unlikely to last. Many more treatments will be needed to catch up with the destruction wrought by the pine beetle, and as crews continue to clear out the dead, there will be plenty more to burn in piles.
“These projects take a while, and there are certainly some areas that we’re just not going to be able to get to,” Jackson said. “But I don’t see us walking away from vegetation management any time soon.”
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