Wildfire Mitigation on Open Space
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.
Strong Future Funding
Passed by Summit County voters in November 2018, the Strong Future Fund (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.
The timber felling, log hauling and stacking (or piling) phase of the Wildernest / Mesa Cortina fuels reduction project is complete. Pile burning will occur sometime in fall or winter of 2020 once the wood has cured and conditions are safe. More information and announcements will be available then.
Joint USFS, Town of Breckenridge, Summit County Open Space and Trails Fuels Reduction Project
Summit County Open Space & Trails, in partnership with the Town of Breckenridge and the US Forest Service, will begin a fuels reduction project in the Peak 7 neighborhood in the very near future with a proposed completion date of November 14, 2019.
The Project Area Map (pdf) and the project objectives are:
- Reduce wildfire hazards within the project area and to adjacent communities,
- Promote regeneration of aspen, spruce and lodgepole stands, and
- Improve visual aesthetics by removing standing dead trees from the property.
While this is largely a USFS project with 37 acres of treatment on the forest, this project includes 6 acres of treatment on joint Town of Breckenridge/Summit County Open Space. All trees with a diameter at breast height (DBH) of 5 inches or less, that are not diseased or unhealthy, will be left. This includes nearly saplings 2,000/acre according to CSFS counts.
Mesa Cortina / Wildernest Open Space Fuels Reduction Project
Summit County Open Space & Trails finished the first phase of a wildfire fuels reduction project on the Wildernest – Mesa Cortina Open Space, in partnership with the Colorado State Forest Service and a timber contractor. In Phase 1, timber crews felled, stacked, and removed trees from three separate sections of the open space.
Phase 2: Pile and Burn
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, likely Fall 2020 after a year of curing. 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.
Reduce and limit:
- the initiation of crown fire activity,
- the spread of fire through the canopy, and
- 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. Actual treatments were 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.
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. If you have more general inquires about wildfire mitigation projects, please contact Colorado State Forest Service Area Forester Ashley Garrison at 719-466-9626 or Ashley.Garrison@colostate.edu.