Prescribed burns this week aim to fight lingering effects of bark beetles

Luke Vidic
Smoke from prescribed burns clouds the air as it lofts over Breckenridge Tuesday in an effort to reduce wildfire fuel as fire hazards rise across the state
Andrew Maciejewski/Summit Daily News archive

Smoke rising across Summit County Monday came from scheduled fuel reduction burns conducted by U.S. Forest Service Fire Management. Burns are likely to continue into Wednesday and possible Thursday near South Barton Gulch.

Atmospheric ventilation rates are favorable this week, according to Dillon Ranger District Fire Engine Captain Creighton Calfee. Smoke should rise and escape the valley, he said. Watching upcoming weather patterns, they can usually predict favorable conditions between one to four days in advance, Calfee said.

More pile burns are tentatively planned for areas around Rainbow Lake in Frisco and Keystone Gulch in Keystone this week.

The burns in Breckenridge primarily addressed toppled lodgepole pines, many of which were the result of the bark beetle epidemic over a decade ago.

Bark beetles peaked in the late 2000s in what Calfee said was a natural ebb-and-flow cycle. Native to the area, the beetles bore into pines to lay their eggs. Once hatched, larvae eat the tissue of the tree, often killing the tree in the process.

“We had a really high mortality rate,” Calfee said about trees in the area.

He said the beetles continues to affect forests years after their numbers have fallen. Trees downed by the beetles have accumulated alongside other toppled timber, increasing the threat of ground-level fires.

Bark beetles are not at epidemic levels presently, but Calfee did say a warmer climate increases their prevalence, along with other tree-boring beetles. Repeated cold nights are deadly to most beetles, so a warmer and shorter winter improves their chances to spread.

“The primary goal of fuel reduction projects is to create defensible space,” Calfee said.

The burn created a buffer zone for firefighters, giving them more time to fight future fires. A wildfire can still cross the area, but slower and with less intensity.

U.S. Forest Service personnel will continue to monitor the burn area until all piles are out. The piles will continue to smolder overnight unattended.

Colorado Public Safety officials predicted Summit County will see “above-normal” wildfire warnings in June, according to its 2022 Wildfire Preparedness Plan.

While most Coloradans expect fire season to last during warmer months of the year, changing climate conditions have changed the wildfire outlooks in recent years.

Gypsum already saw its first wildfire of the year. The Duck Pond Fire forced evacuations in Gypsum as it burned between the town and Dotsero. A drone battery that crashed caused the Table Mountain Fire near Boulder recently, and sparks caused by an illegal welding activity caused the Silver Charm Fire near Colorado Springs this month.

Low humidity and high winds have fueled the recent wildfire activity, so local officials are working on mitigation plans to help in case there are any wildfires locally.


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