U.S. Forest Service talks the when, where and how of fuel breaks in Summit County
September 19, 2018
One of the key components of fire mitigation is fuel reduction – thinning out areas of dense, overgrown and often unhealthy forest to reduce the amount of fuel available for wildfires. While most folks in the High Country now understand the importance of fuel breaks, the location for the breaks is often a contentious issue. Residents may, understandably, be worried about the impact thinning can have on their own property's market and aesthetic value.
During September's meeting of the Forest Health Task Force, deputy Dillon district ranger Adam Bianchi explained the criteria the Forest Service uses to choose areas for thinning, which may be useful to understand why certain areas are cleared and others are left untouched.
Bianchi began the presentation with a photo of the Buffalo Mountain Fire, which was stopped in its tracks by fuel breaks dug in by the service years ago. The $11 million investment saved billions in property value and priceless scenery.
Bianchi then gave a historical overview of thinning in Summit County, starting from the mid-'90s when the mountain pine beetle epidemic began and affected 143,000 acres of forestland in Summit, killing half the trees in the county. During that time, Summit County's population more than doubled, from around 13,000 to 28,000 residents.
Ninty-nine percent of those residents are in the Wildland-Urban Interface, areas designated as close enough to wilderness to require protection from fires and other natural forest hazards. Local, regional and federal officials got together back in 2006 to start developing a Community Wildfire Protection Plan to avoid an impending catastrophe as trees got sick, withered and died all over the county.
Fire breaks were deemed a critical tool in the arsenal against wildfires. These clear-cut areas serve several purposes. First, to reduce the threat of wildfires to homes and other essential structures. The breaks also make it possible for firefighters to take a defensive stand while fighting fires.
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Ecologically, they also serve to speed up nature's work by thinning dead brush and clearing the tree canopies so more sunlight can hit the ground, giving a new generation of trees and forest floor vegetation a chance to thrive. That in effect helps make watersheds and wildlife habitats healthier and more diverse.
That diversity also applies to the trees themselves. Areas the forest service target tend to have a "monoculture" of lodgepole pine, meaning they lack diversity of other trees like Aspen, which are not affected by the beetle.
"Those areas become giant feasting grounds for mountain pine beetles," Bianchi said. Thus, aside from the thinning, the Forest Service also seeks to introduce a variety of seedlings from other tree species into the area to give the forest a kind of "herd immunity," slowing down the progress of future tree diseases that affect only one type of tree.
Due to limited resources, the Forest Service has to prioritize some areas for thinning more than others. Forestland closest to homes and other human structures are always prioritized. Other factors come into play such as type of vegetation, accessibility to the area by logging trucks, relative flatness of the land and difficulty for loggers to do their work, as well as consideration of how close the forest is to private property boundaries.
Aside from tangible factors, the forest service also heavily weighs community support for the thinning. If a community seems ardently against a thinning project, the forest service takes the input into consideration and may very well abandon the thinning until there is more local support for the project.
"We're not going to push certain things if the public is not interested in doing it," Bianchi said. "We try to listen to communities best we can, and try to come up with a compromise. The location of fuel breaks are driven by where there's support for it."
Bianchi ended the presentation with the state of forestland in Summit. While the mountain pine beetle epidemic is effectively over, with the voracious little critters last seen in the county back in 2015, there are new threats heading this way — the spruce pine beetle and a parasitic fungus known as dwarf mistletoe. Both sicken and weaken trees. Combined with high temperatures and low water levels, a new forest epidemic may be on the horizon.
Bianchi said that it is imperative that fuel reduction efforts continue to be supported by the public and that the issue continues to be visible.
"If we don't have a fire in the next 5 years, people might not necessarily see a need for the thinning," Bianchi said. "Ultimately the Forest Service will do its best to educate the public about the need for fuel reduction and continue work to keep these forests healthy."