Watershed health in the Arkansas Valley

Aspen trees in autumn. Photo: Bob West via the Colorado State Forest Service.

From The Mountain Mail (Kim Marquis):

It’s not a question of if a wildfire will burn in Chaffee County but a question of when, according to a report by the Colorado State Forest Service, a state agency charged with helping homeowners prepare for a wildfire.

Colorado has seen a 400 percent increase in acres burned by wildfire since the 1990s, according to the report. Widespread insect infestations have killed off wide swaths of the state’s forests, and while residents can’t see it yet, the situation is no different in Chaffee County.

More than half of Chaffee County’s forested lands are insect-infested, according aerial surveys by the Salida Ranger District.

The majority of the rest of the trees are at risk, especially at higher elevations where spruce beetles are spreading from the south, Salida District Ranger Jim Pitts said.

Only five spruce trees per acre look dead now, but the visible mortality rate – when needles turn brown and then drop – will increase to 120 trees per acre in just a few years, he said.

In addition to spruce beetles, the county’s forest pests include other bark beetles and Western spruce budworm – the state’s most widespread insect defoliator.

The budworm in 2016 caused damage on 12,000 acres in Chaffee County, Kathryn Hardgrave, a forester with the Salida Field Office of the Colorado State Forest Service, said.

Chaffee County so far has experienced no major wildfires. The community could be better prepared to deal with a wildfire and lessen the aftereffects, Pitts said.

Fire mitigation on private land is just the beginning. More than 80 percent of the county is composed of federal lands, and the county’s forest health is in dire straits, Pitts said.

Federal land managers have ramped up fire mitigation efforts in Chaffee County in the past three years by treating more than 4,000 acres with thinning and prescribed burns, he said. Nearly 20,000 acres have been treated since 2009, but more work needs to be done.

“The acres we’ve treated so far are in high-priority areas, but we do have holes, and we’ve got to work on filling in some of those gaps that will provide a better buffer,” he said.

Recent work on Monarch Pass will protect infrastructure and power lines near the ski area and reduce the chance that the pass would act like a funnel in a wildfire, Pitts said, which is what happened in the Sangre de Cristos during the Hayden Creek Fire in 2016.

A team of Colorado Parks and Wildlife and U.S. Forest Service biologists, staff and volunteers fanned out along rugged Newlin Creek and four tributaries on Oct. 25, 2017, to search of cutthroat trout rescued from the South Prong of Hayden Creek during a 2016 wildlife. Photo credit Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Pitts said the county’s deeper forests still need to be treated, where thick stands of trees could fuel a fire. Preconstructed, strategically placed fire breaks can provide opportunities to stop a wildfire from spreading.

In 2002, more than 2,000 fires burned 502,000 acres in Colorado and forced the evacuation of 81,000 residents, according to the State Forest Service report.

Ten years later, six people lost their lives and more than 600 structures were destroyed during the 2012 fire season that caused more than $538 million in losses.

Since then, the wildfire season has lengthened, resulting in fires that start earlier, last longer, cost more to suppress and cause more damage, according to the report, which noted that forests provide social, economic and ecological benefits by offering outdoor recreation opportunities, providing fresh water and supporting diverse wildlife species.

Large wildfires can cause flooding, erosion, degraded water quality and reduced water storage capacity, harming drinking supplies, agriculture and additional segments of the economy, the report said.

Flooding after wildfires in other parts of the state has altered seasonal flows, leading to unfavorably timed runoff, and put so much sediment into reservoirs that it reduced storage capacity, according to the State Forest Service, which also found that water quality can be impacted for at least five years after a fire.

More from The Mountain Mail:

Communities can benefit in a wildfire with planning and preparation

The Salida Field Office of the Colorado State Forest Service has assessed 1,079 properties for wildfire risk – roughly 19 percent of homes in unincorporated areas of the county.

Of those, 40 percent have high or very high risk, and so far, only 13 percent are known to have been treated by landowners to mitigate risk.

Homes in the zone where fire on the forest can potentially be stopped before it reaches communities are in the wildland urban interface (WUI) – pronounced “woo-wee” – where development meets or intermingles with forests.

WUI property owners often underestimate their situation, Colorado State Forest Service Salida Office Forester Kathryn Hardgrave said.

“A lot of them moved there or put their house there because of the trees, so you’re asking them to take away the appeal,” Hardgrave said. “They don’t realize what the consequences could be or if it’s their second home, they don’t think it will be as dramatic.”

Community Wildfire Protection Plans define the WUI and help shape treatment priorities for surrounding lands. They also address local firefighting capability and defensible space around homes and subdivisions.

Chaffee County is one of 49 in Colorado with a countywide plan, but the number of smaller plans covering fire protection districts and communities at the subdivision or HOA level in Chaffee County is small, according to tracking by the state agency.

There are 235 of these smaller plans in the state, including six in Chaffee County: Alpine/St. Elmo, Game Trail, Maysville/North Fork, Mount Harvard Estates, Trail West and Poncha Springs.

Additional programs help neighborhoods become Fire Adapted Communities or Firewise Communities, when homeowners take personal responsibility to reduce wildfire risk by creating safer and healthier conditions for people and nature.

“When there is a wildfire over the ridge heading toward your community, these plans are what you go to,” Salida District Ranger Jim Pitts said.

Colorado has 151 Firewise Communities, including eight in the town of Breckenridge. Chaffee County has three – Alpine, St. Elmo and Maysville – and no Fire Adapted Communities.

Being “Firewise” will pay off in the event of a wildfire, Pitts said, because it ensures agencies that residents have done what they can to prepare.

“If it is not a safe environment to go in and take a stance to protect a structure or make a fire line, we are not going to put firefighters in there,” Pitts said.

The plans also describe the resources and steps that people agree to take in an evacuation.

“That planning all adds up quickly in an emergency assessment,” Pitts said.

For more information about community fire mitigation, contact the Colorado State Forest Service Salida Field Office at 539-2579 or visit csfs.colostate.edu/salida.

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