Summit County continues ramped-up wildfire mitigation through fall
September 6, 2016
It may be September, but the chance of a wildfire in Summit County remains a real possibility.
It's because of this potential that the region's stepped-up mitigation efforts continue through the fall and even winter to avoid a disastrous fire incident. This work throughout the county includes the Forest Service's fuels reduction activities, the county's government-driven chipping program and local fire departments' defensible space reviews.
"We in Summit County are potentially one lightning strike away from a major, catastrophic event when we look right now that we have about 156,000 acres of dead trees," said County Commissioner Dan Gibbs. "We've been very fortunate the last few years."
A certified wildlands firefighter and also chair of Colorado's Division of Fire Prevention and Control Wildfire advisory committee, Gibbs helps spearhead community attempts to reduce the threat of this ruinous event.
"Every year kind of fluctuates in terms of wildfire incidents," he added, "but if you look at the past few years we've had an average of 25 wildfire incidents (statewide). It's not a matter of if, it's when, in my opinion, we have a larger-scale fire in Summit County."
The Forest Service is presently wrapping up tree removal on about 450 acres above the Highlands community along Gold Run Road (County Road 300) in Breckenridge. The hope is to have those cutting, chipping and hauling activities completed by the end of October.
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Meanwhile, those crews have also shifted some of their attention to Frey Gulch, a 130-acre plot north of Keystone, where large piles will also be chipped and then sent to become energy at the biomass plant in Gypsum. The Brush Creek project, southeast of Green Mountain Reservoir, will also harvest dead and downed lodgepole pine to promote regeneration of future forest, create structural and species diversity and also reduce those fuel accumulations.
"We're trying to target those higher-risk areas around the community," explained Dillon District ranger Bill Jackson. "We're also trying to implement these treatments where it's also important to the community. With limited dollars, we try to get the most bang for our buck and try to benefit other resources at the same time."
Other ongoing projects in South Deep Creek and North Deep Creek, Spring Creek — each west of Green Mountain Reservoir — as well as the Ophir Mountain area of Frisco, as well as general pile burning are scheduled to continue through 2017 and 2018. The primary purpose of these efforts is to diminish hazardous sources for flames in National Forest areas adjacent to communities, but also acquire timber for the retail industry.
"We're not a singularly-focused agency like maybe when we were first incepted," said Jackson. "Part of our mission is to provide wood products to the American public, but oftentimes we find that the areas we select typically can bring these multiple benefits — whether it's to provide wildlife habitat or the age-class diversity in vegetation."
During restart of the Highlands project this summer, some Breckenridge residents called local law enforcement with concerns over what was happening on the nearby forest land and to complain about noise issues associated with the Forest Service's work. With those snags now ironed out, the Forest Service wants to emphasize that the protection strategy is to the benefit of the entire community, particularly those who reside within this relatively densely-populated wildland-urban interface. Similar objections were also logged regarding the peninsula in Frisco last year.
"That was all clear-cut and it looks great now and people like the open views," added Jackson. "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I guess, right? And there's times when a road may have to be closed or a trail. We haven't seen that yet this year on our stuff, and we try to mitigate that the best we can. If we do impact a trail, quickly we try to go behind and fix the trail."
Still A Threat
Coupled with the county government's neighborhood chipping program, which lasts through the end of September in some areas of the county, and fire department reviews, the idea is to work collectively to minimize the opportunity for a wildfire to break out.
"We have the potential for a wildlife 12 months out of the year up, which is perhaps exacerbated by the state of the forest with all of the beetle kill," said Steve Lipsher, public information officer for Lake Dillon Fire Rescue. "We've had wildfire with snow on the ground. It's very unlikely in January and February, but it is possible, and for us, our fire season does extend from April 1 to Nov. 1 many years."
Despite the quiet wildfire year locally with the exception of a bit of smoke here or there, fire danger was upgraded to moderate throughout the county on Tuesday. It was listed as 'high' during periods in July and August — a grade Lipsher said is normal and expected in Summit County — though it never did reach a level more elevated than that. Still, it's this group approach that has helped prevent a major fire in the region in recent memory.
"We feel that it's vital," said Lipsher. "We try to make developed properties as defensible as possible so if we ever have a wildlife we can protect them. Equally as important, we want to raise awareness with the public and private property owners and residents with what they can be doing now to be better prepared for the possibility of a wildlife."
Free, year-round defensible space reviews are available through the respective fire districts. Please contact the following to set yours up: Lake Dillon Fire Rescue: (970) 262-5209; Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District: (970) 453-2474; or Copper Mountain Fire Department: (970) 968-2300.
"Like the cliché goes, all it takes is a spark," said Jackson. "It's one of those things where it's low frequency or probability, but high consequences. And when we're high for fire danger, anything can go."