Wildfires in Colorado are a natural part of our ecosystems, and they can help restore and maintain healthy forests. The wildland-urban interface (WUI) can be described as the area where structures and other human development meet or intermingle with wildland vegetative fuels. Where homes and other infrastructure have been built in this WUI, it is generally important to mitigate these built features against the inevitable risk of wildland fire.
The forests in the Summit County area have evolved with fire as an agent of change and renewal, and fire is the most significant factor in shaping the forest landscape we see today. Generally speaking, the return interval, or years between major fire events, increases as altitude increases, but fire remains a significant risk in our wildland-urban interface. When considering fire in these ecosystems, it is crucial to assess the current stand conditions because they will define fire behavior and, consequently, potential fire hazard.
Passed by Summit County voters in November 2018, measure 1A provides about $1 million per year for wildfire mitigation programs and strategies, including fuel breaks around neighborhoods, hazardous fuels reduction, street-sign improvements for responder navigation, fire hydrant line improvements, cistern installation, road upgrades for firefighting equipment access, secondary egresses from subdivisions, wildfire prevention patrols and public education on wildfire prevention.
Projects and Partnerships
Open Space's mission includes maintaining healthy, diverse forests while reducing wildfire hazard. Our goal is to evaluate projects in “Focus Areas” of the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), as defined by the Community Wildfire Protection Plan because forest treatments far from focus areas may have little effect on community safety. Fuelbreaks and fuels reduction have proven themselves to be effective in Summit County and Colorado, in general.
In partnership between the Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS) and Open Space, a CSFS forester drafts treatment plans for high priority open spaces, manages contracts and contractors for wildfire mitigation projects, recommends prescriptions and oversees maintenance of past cuts, and evaluates timber projects on open spaces adjacent to private parcels as requested by the public.
Mesa Cortina / Wildernest Open Space Fuels Reduction Project
The three main objectives to be met through the recommend treatments are to reduce and limit: (1) the initiation of crown fire activity, (2) the spread of fire through the canopy, and (3) to establish/maintain forest resiliency. The first two objectives are often accomplished by designing treatments that reduce surface and canopy fuel loading and increase the canopy base height. The forest resiliency and health objective will be met by removing unhealthy trees, increasing tree composition, and by reducing tree densities to allow better growing conditions. By utilizing a thin from below (removing smaller, ladder fuels) with appropriate slash treatment, the above objectives will be met. These treatments will work in concert to reduce surface fuel loading, increase canopy base height, and to limit the transition from surface to crown fire. In addition, this will also increase the crown spacing to limit the potential for crown fire spread.
For all three stands, the recommend treatment for harvesting will be a thin from below to a residual Trees Per Acre (TPA) of 175. This TPA will be accomplished by harvesting all dead trees within the stands, removing dying, diseased or poor form live trees (≈ 40 live TPA), and removing ladder fuels under the remaining overstory. This prescription will involve an individual tree marking before project implementation. By marking individual trees, foresters will be able to modify the crown spacing to limit the ability of a crown fire, while also selectively retaining the healthiest and most aesthetically pleasing trees. Actual treatments could be a combination of hand and mechanical felling, with most, if not all, done by hand due to the sensitive nature of the area.
Slash and Log Removal Recommendations
Effective slash treatment and removal of logs are going to be the most challenging aspect of the project. With limited access into the stands, log removal will have to be done via winching. Slash treatment options are pile and burn, lop and scatter, or chipping where limbs come out with logs.
Pile and burn is the most effective way to reduce the post treatment fuel loading. Piling would be done by hand in the most sensitive areas, assuring the least negative effects to remaining vegetation. Piles would then be burned in the winter with seasonal snowpack to ensure effective and safe consumption. The smoke impacts to the surrounding communities could be mitigated by burning when there are ideal conditions for smoke dispersion as well as quick pile consumption.
Lop and scatter would be the most cost effective treatment; however, this changes the fuel arrangement/orientation rather than reducing the fuels. Logs and slash will have ground contact and begin to decay quicker than standing material, but will still pose a risk for the near future. This treatment may be utilized in conjunction with pile and burn in areas where damage to the riparian area could occur.
If you have any questions, comments, or concerns about wildfire mitigation projects on open space, please contact Summit County Open Space & Trails Resource Specialist Michael Wurzel at 970-668-4065 or Michael.Wurzel@summitcountyco.gov.