Summit County commissioners get preview of the county’s wildfire mitigation efforts
The Summit Board of County Commissioners held their first work session Tuesday with a vacant seat, as former commissioner Dan Gibbs resigned last week to pursue an appointment to head the state’s Department of Natural Resources. The work session covered open spaces and forest management, as well as discussion of the new county health alliance meant to bring down health costs in Summit and changes that might allow fire bans to be extended through the entire summer.
Open space and trails director Brian Lorch and resource specialist Michael Wurzel began by giving commissioners Thomas Davidson and Karn Stiegelmeier a rundown of the work they plan to do this year.
Among the high priorities for the department is continued wildfire mitigation work in open spaces near populated areas in the county, particularly around Mesa Cortina and near Bashore Court in Wildernest. Standing, dead timber all over the county continues to be the lasting legacy of the mountain pine beetle epidemic. Thinning and fuel breaks will be conducted in areas with particularly dense beetle kill.
The department will also be looking to do maintenance work in previously cut areas from 2005 to 2014 that have gotten overgrown. Wurzel said that they are looking to also prevent a “monoculture” of lodgepole pine trees by introducing more aspen, spruce, Ponderosa and Bristlecone pine trees into the mix. Lodgepole pine are a particularly hardy tree species, with growth activated by disturbances and clear cuts.
The Colorado State Forest Service also gave a recommendation of keeping a density of 175 trees per acre in treated areas, while removing “ladder fuels” such as low branches and floor growth to help prevent fires spreading from the ground to the trees and then across canopies.
The county is also working to enact a Firewise Neighbor program, which would allow private landowners to perform fuels reduction projects on open space next to or near their private properties if they meet certain wildfire mitigation criteria.
County manager Scott Vargo updated the commissioners on several developments for the county over the past few weeks, including the signing of a letter of intent for the county government to be a part of the newly announced Peak Health Alliance that would combine the negotiating force of the county’s largest employers to bring down provider health costs and insurance premiums.
Vargo said that he emphasized to the organizers of the alliance that the county maintains a solid and symbiotic relationship with Centura Health, which operates St. Anthony Summit Medical Center, and the preference for Centura to be involved in the process of building the alliance, slated to go live in 2020.
Vargo also said that he had met with the fire districts, sheriff and county attorney to draft a proposal for new fire restriction criteria. This would enable the county to more easily and quickly adopt fire restrictions.
The draft proposal would create six criteria elements for fire danger, and trigger Stage 1 fire restrictions if two criteria are met and Stage 2 restrictions if three or more are met. The proposal would allow the county to implement fire restrictions in particularly hot and dry conditions all summer instead of having to wait for a certain set of fire and fuel conditions to be met.
However, Vargo said that this proposal, as well as the critical forest service patrol arrangement created last year, would probably need to be shelved for the time-being due to the federal government shutdown. Without the Forest Service at the table, it would be impossible to get the approval and cooperation needed to get these wildfire mitigation initiatives on national forestland moving ahead.
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