Preventive work being done on local and federal levels
By Adam Broderick
Despite recent rainstorms in the area, winter precipitation was low and that can lead to above-average summer fire danger. The snow and rain we received in May might have helped the situation some, but given the amount of deadwood in the valley, a major fire event is still possible, even during a wet summer.
A June 8 statement from the U.S. Department of the Interior said secretary of the interior Sally Jewell released a comprehensive, science-based strategy last month to address the increasing threat of wildfires that are damaging vital sagebrush landscapes and productive rangelands in the West.
According to Secretarial Order 3336, Jewell’s “science-based strategy” places priority on “protecting, conserving, and restoring the health of the sagebrush-steppe ecosystem and, in particular, greater sage grouse habitat, while maintaining safe and efficient operations,” and [the order] looks to the allocation of fire resources and assets associated with wildland fire and investments related to restoration activities to reflect that priority.
Nine interagency task groups will work collaboratively with other federal, tribal, state and local governmental partners and stakeholders to identify longer-term actions to ensure the allocation of fire management resources and assets before, during and after wildland fire incidents.
On a local level
Representatives from Gunnison County Emergency Management, the Colorado State Forest Service and the West Region Wildfire Council (WRWC) updated Gunnison County commissioners earlier this year on how the agencies have been working together to mitigate regional wildfires and fuels reduction, and which preventive projects are in the works for summer.
The WRWC is a non-profit organization consisting of six counties: Delta, Gunnison, Hinsdale, Montrose, Ouray and San Miguel. Its mission includes mitigating loss due to “wildfire in wildland urban interface communities” and preparing “counties, fire protection districts, communities and agencies to plan for and mitigate potential threats from wildfire.”
According to Lilia Falk, director of WRWC, the organization goes out in the field to improve ingress and egress, roofing components, dangerous topography or slope, defensible space and background fuels, and other combustibles in the home ignition zone.
Falk described examples of such combustibles as firewood stacked under decks, propane tanks, and anything that makes a home more vulnerable to a wildfire.
“We treated 91 acres of strategic fuel reduction zones in the last three years and completed more than 200 wildfire risk assessments in Gunnison County. In Trappers Crossing,” Falk said, “we were able to get huge support from the community and strategically plan mitigation techniques.”
Sam Pankratz of the Colorado State Forest Service told commissioners, “About 900 acres have been treated in the last six years and about 114 acres are planned for treatments in 2015.”
Pankratz went on to highlight some recent work conducted close to downtown Crested Butte. “We now have the entire Wildcat Trail treated,” he said. “We got every one of the parcels to get on board and let us come 50 feet onto their property to improve ingress/egress. The plan is to move north into Trappers at Crested Butte. It’s making a good difference and when I brought [Crested Butte Fire Protection District] chief Rick Ems up there to look at it, he felt a lot better about bringing his crew up there than he did a few years ago. We took around 800 cords of firewood out of Trappers.”
Pankratz also mentioned ongoing preventive work at Quartz Creek, where there are between 400 and 410 mining claims. “This project was a roadside thing and was an extreme risk rating with all the mining claims in the area. Overall in Quartz Creek we treated 92 acres,” Pankratz told commissioners.
Scott Morrill of Gunnison County Emergency Management said they had been trying to get Trappers Crossing to conduct some mitigation because they’re an extremely hazardous community. “It’s pretty much a death trap up there,” Morril said. “We went up there and gave a presentation to homeowners and we were brutally honest. It’s like we opened the floodgates and now it’s going real well.”
Falk said the WRWC is able to give homeowners and residents a way to prioritize strategic steps to protect their homes, and the agencies all promote homeowner responsibility. “How do we live without having catastrophic events? Homeowners need to jump on and take responsibility as well,” he said.
Pankratz listed some local projects in the works this year, such as finishing the treatment of heavily wooded areas at Wilderness Streams, Arrowhead and Trappers Crossing. Projects to be initiated this year would be more work at Quartz Creek; assessing and working at the Blue Mesa subdivision—Pankratz says the Douglas fir beetle has been ravaging Blue Mesa and they are going to be very active with management there this year; and outreach and work at Marble/Upper Crystal River, White Pine, Lake Irwin, Gunnison Highlands and Spring Creek.
Pankratz pointed out that the area has been fortunate not to have a major fire event in Gunnison County with major fire loss. “We haven’t had that here but we are all very well aware of the risk,” he said.
Pankratz believes, “Regardless of weather, when you have a lot of dead trees out there and dead fuel—there can always be that stars-align event.” He says even in a wet summer with good monsoons, if you get a week of stars-align weather with windy days on the right slope, or lightning, fires can happen no matter what. “One of the main concerns is that we move forward, no matter the weather.”