Summit County set to begin clear-cutting in Wildernest-Mesa Cortina Open Space as part of wildfire mitigation project |

Summit County set to begin clear-cutting in Wildernest-Mesa Cortina Open Space as part of wildfire mitigation project

The 2018 Buffalo Mountain Fire burn zone near the Wildernest community is seen from above tree line on Buffalo Mountain in August 2018.
Antonio Olivero /

FRISCO— Summit County is set to begin a major fuels reduction project in the Wildernest-Mesa Cortina Open Space next week, a move officials believe will help to improve forest health and mitigate wildfire risk in the area.

Just over a year after the Buffalo Mountain Fire spurred evacuations of more than 1,600 individuals in the neighborhood, the county identified mitigation work on the parcel as one of its highest priorities following the passage of Ballot Initiative 1A in November.

“When Summit County voters passed 1A funding, which allocated about $1 million a year for hazardous fuel reduction projects of various types, that gave the open space department an opportunity to start doing fuel reduction and fire-breaks on our own properties,” said Michael Wurzel, resource specialist with Summit County Open Space and Trails. “So we immediately did a prioritization of efforts, and as one would assume, the Wildernest-Mesa Cortina Open Space came out as a high priority for fuel reductions.”

The project will take place on county owned property south of Royal Buffalo Drive in the Wildernest neighborhood. Of the roughly 90 acres of open space on the property, Wurzel said about 30 acres are forestland — as opposed to riparian or wetlands — and marked for mitigation. The project will be completed in partnership with the Colorado State Forest Service and contracted through Willowcreek Timber Services. It is set to begin July 29.

A map showing the location of the mitigation work, beginning with the far east parcel.
Courtesy Summit County Open Space & Trails Department

The project has two main goals: maintaining a healthy and diverse forest, and limiting the wildfire risk. Wurzel said mitigation work has taken place in this area before, though it was always restrained to sections where machines could get in due to budgetary constraints. With the additional funding provided by the 1A initiative, now called the Summit County Strong Future Fund, the open space department has more flexibility to dive deeper into areas with less accessible terrain by hiring crews to complete a majority of the work by hand.

“After the bark beetles came through years ago, the main treatment for forest regeneration has been clear-cutting the areas of dead and dying trees and starting over,” Wurzel said. “Because the area has steep slopes and difficult access, some of that work hasn’t happened. There’s still a lot of dead and dying timber in that open space. So what this project will do is get that timber on the ground into a pile, and get it burned and allow the forest to regenerate.”

The Colorado State Forest Service has already swept through the area and strategically identified which trees should be cut down or removed to improve growing conditions and reduce tree densities. Additionally, officials are hoping that by removing some timber in the area, they can help to reinvigorate existing aspen groves.

In regard to wildfire mitigation, on top of removing dead and dying trees, crews will utilize a thin-from-below strategy removing smaller “ladder” fuels to heighten the canopy.

“By removing ladder fuels, we hope that we’re increasing the canopy height and limiting the opportunity for a fire to transition from a surface fire to a crown fire,” Wurzel said. “So we’re working on reducing that overall fuel load and hoping if there was a fire it would stay on the ground.”

Because of the steep slopes, it will be difficult to remove some of the fuels, meaning any slash that can’t be removed will be piled and burned in the future, likely this fall or winter, when conditions are favorable.

The project is expected to cost about $100,000 for the felling of the trees, on top of other costs, and represents the first major mitigation endeavor funded by the Strong Future money. The work is expected to be complete by mid-September. Of note, there will be trail closures in areas with ongoing mitigation work. Closures will be noted on the county’s Facebook page or on the special projects page of the county’s website.

Wurzel noted that projects similar in size and scope are already being planned for the next few years, focusing on the county’s wildland urban interface to ensure the biggest positive impacts to public safety.

“One of the things we’re looking at is where these projects are going to be most effective,” Wurzel said. “… We own a lot of property in deep backcountry spots. It doesn’t do much for community protection to do mitigation work on a small parcel in the backcountry, so we’re focused on the projects in the wildland urban interface, where doing fuels reduction does really have that community safety benefit to it.”

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