Local officials discuss potential wildfire danger in the North Valley

Council advocates conservative approach

[  By Mark Reaman  ]

As we enter what is expected to be another spring and summer of drought, the Crested Butte town council received an update in April on how local officials are prepared to handle any potential hazard, but a wildfire disaster in particular. 

While not something anyone wants to see happen, councilmembers said it was best to look at plans, think about how to handle such an incident and touch on how to recover in case of a disaster. Council asked local emergency officials to take a conservative approach and not be afraid to implement fire restrictions early and often.

Gunnison County emergency manager Scott Morrill said an extensive mitigation plan is in place and every cell phone tied to the county would receive a notification in case of a major disaster. A plan has also been worked on to evacuate the North Valley in case a wildfire posed a threat. 

“This town is basically a Wildland Urban Interface given its location surrounded by fire fuels,” explained Crested Butte chief marshal Mike Reily. County charts indicate the three most “extreme” risk areas in the county when it comes to potential wildfire threats include the Lake Irwin area, Trapper’s Crossing, and the Quartz Creek area east of Gunnison.

Crested Butte Fire Protection District fire and EMS chief Rob Weisbaum said given the district’s staffing situation, “if any major incident happens, it would overwhelm us. We may not be able to overcome a big incident with our limited resources.”

Weisbaum said every year they see unattended campfires in the nearby backcountry but they are making extended efforts to reach out to people camping in the various drainages to help educate the public. “The big concern is that with the increase in visitors, the human factor could lead to a major wildfire,” he said. 

Councilmember Mona Merrill said she sees the need to, if not ban campfires, pull the trigger on fire restrictions quicker during the increasingly dry summers. Mayor Ian Billick seconded the call to be more cautious overall. He said the regional emergency officials could take or leave the council’s opinion, but the overwhelming council sentiment was to err on the side of caution and be conservative.

Councilmember Anna Fenerty suggested that the Smokey the Bear sign with the fire rating danger located at the entrance to town be duplicated at the entrance to every valley. “People don’t always read signs so the more info we provide, the better,” she said.

Billick pressed town and regional officials to make sure there was adequate insurance to cover a disaster and make sure there was a plan that could help the town recover if it had to shut down for any period of time due to something like a major wildfire or just smoke inundation from a nearby fire. Crested Butte town manager Dara MacDonald said the town’s financial reserves are in a position to keep town services running for more than a year with no additional revenues.

Councilmember Chris Haver asked if the town should be looking at a redundant source of water other than Coal Creek. MacDonald said there is a plan to run a pipe from the Slate River to the town reservoir to provide such an alternative water source. But that is part of the second five-year plan in the town’s long-term master plan and will cost between $8 and $10 million. “Having the redundant source of water would be very valuable but it is a matter of money and priority,” said MacDonald.

Councilmember Jason MacMillan said he has heard a lot of citizen concern over the possibility of a wildfire on Gibson’s Ridge given it proximity to town. 

Crested Butte Parks, Recreation, Open Space and Trails supervisor Joey Carpenter said town is monitoring and trying to mitigate the spread of the Mountain Pine Beetle that kills trees near town. He indicated there was also an effort to improve the fire break between town and Gibson’s Ridge on the south side of Crested Butte. “Talking to the Colorado Forest Service, every year is a bigger concern,” he said. 

Jim Ramirez of the U.S. Forest Service indicated beetle kill was not the only major concern but the fact the valley is situated in forest area made it a natural hazard. “We live in a beautiful place, but it is made of fuels. The ebb and flow is definitely going up and not in our favor. Dead wood is piling up and that is a concern.”

Morrill said holding the public discussion over potential hazards like wildfires is a fruitful exercise. “Just having the conversation is important,” he said. “The more we talk, the more solutions we can come up with.”

Ramirez agreed. “Collaboration and consistency are very important,” he said.

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