What you should know about the upcoming 90-acre Wellington pile burn in Breckenridge
Earlier this week, the Open Space & Trails Department announced an upcoming controlled burn project planned for the Wellington neighborhood of Breckenridge.
The multiagency effort, named the Wellington Fuels Reduction and Forest Health Project, will take up about 90 acres and burn approximately 2,000 slash piles across U.S. Forest Service land as well as Summit County and Breckenridge open space properties.
The burn has been called “unprecedented,” but Open Space & Trails Resource Specialist Jordan Mead assured attendees that the word choice has nothing to do with the nature of the burn.
“What really is unprecedented about this is that this operation will be the first time that we have a multiagency collaborative that is undertaking this project to complete prescribed pile burning on your local public lands,” Mead said during a public information session on Thursday, Oct. 27.
The multiagency collaboration is due to the proximity of the burn to residential, recreational and publicly accessible areas.
The Wellington neighborhood, which is near where the burn will take place, is located west of Breckenridge and contains many homes that are occupied year round, hiking and biking trails and houses containing families with small children. Summit County Commissioner Elisabeth Lawrence said any day of the week, children can be seen running around as well as people walking their dogs.
This project has been in the works for around 15 years, said Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District Captain Matt Benedict.
In 2007, bark beetles infested trees that surrounded Breckenridge, leaving much of the forest dry, dead and dangerous, Benedict explained. That’s when wildland fire agencies began pushing for a controlled burn.
However, because of the close proximity to the town, officials with the Town of Breckenridge were weary.
Benedict said, at first, the town allowed about 5 acres to be burned on open space, which he added went very well. Following that first project, Benedict explained they picked a lot of “low hanging fruits,” that were safe and easy to burn.
“Then we started to really drill it down,” Benedict said. “This is where the State Forest Service and fire districts and the U.S. Forest Service all put our heads together and were like — alright, we need to find these really critical parcels — and this one came right to the top.”
Mead said plans for the Wellington pile burn cutting began in spring of 2020, and cuts were implemented the following autumn. For the past year, Mead has been planning the burn.
“It felt like it was my duty to finish this project that we started with cutting and the slash pile building,” Mead said. “We were always planning to burn the piles, and it really just became a matter of — how do we do that?”
He added that due to an increase of insurance markets’ wildfire exemption clauses, there were no burns last winter. That also meant specific systems had to be put in place for the Wellington burn to happen.
“It’s been a long time to go through the process,” Lawrence said. “There’s a cross boundary, there’s multiple interest holders, landowners are involved.”
For all of these reasons, close monitoring of the burn will be integral for the community, Mead said.
There is not a set date yet, but Mead said conditions are quickly becoming ideal for the piles to start burning. Around 6 inches of snow on the ground is the appropriate “prescription” for this kind of burn, which Benedict said could happen at some point during the week of Oct. 31. This is because the snow will aid in keeping the fire contained. Benedict said the snow can keep pile fires from spreading no further than 1 inch from the pile perimeter.
The fire is expected to last about two to three days, Mead said, burning about 1,000 piles per day. Though the burn will be contained, monitored and controlled by multiple agencies, Mead said smoke will be visible, and the atmosphere may become very hazy. There are plans in place to communicate with the community and provide reassurance for those concerned.
Mead said multiple alerts will be spread by Summit County Alerts, announcements will be shared via community partners and various officers, firefighters and agency workers will be patrolling the residential and recreation area to answer the public’s questions.
Recreation is also still permitted, such as cross-country skiing, dog walking (though Mead recommended keeping dogs on a leash) and hiking.
“We understand that these are popular areas,” Benedict said. “We know we’ll see people up there. Most likely, I’ll be at the bottom answering questions … we do understand that people will be observing and watching, and that’s okay because they’re piles in the snow.”
In the end, this burn will help fuel reduction. Also, rather than eliminating a fire completely, it will become a more manageable burn, Benedict said.
“Going from a bug-kill blowdown, jackstraw forest that we can’t fight the fire in it, to an area that we burned all the piles — we’ve changed the fuel type, we’ve changed the orientation, and now we’ve got a fire that basically just creeps right along the ground that we can walk right up to, put it out, or decide to manage it.” Benedict added.
He said the important part is — the firefighters have a choice.
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