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May 16, 2012
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Aspen area due for severe wildfire season

ASPEN - The national forest surrounding Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley is ripe for wildfires, according to Scott Fitzwilliams, supervisor of the White River National Forest.

But while the Forest Service and other agencies are prepared to fight them, there may be times when the agency lets fires burn despite the tinder-dry conditions, Fitzwilliams told Pitkin County commissioners Tuesday.

"There may be times this summer when I choose to manage a fire with multiple objectives ... when we want to do more than just put it out," he said.

Deciding to let a fire burn to improve habitat and clear out dead vegetation will depend on a host of factors and won't occur when lives or homes are at stake, Fitzwilliams said, but he also urged the county to get the word out to homeowners that not every house will be deemed worth saving.

Firefighters won't be put in harm's way to attack a fire threatening an "indefensible" structure, Fitzwilliams said.

"Frankly, there are places all over the valley that, in my opinion, are indefensible," he said. In fact, Fitzwilliams told commissioners he recently purchased one such house and has been busy with a chain saw since then.

Defensible homes are those that aren't closely hemmed in by a lot of trees and shrubs, among other things. Go to www.firewise.org for more information on making a home defensible, or to www.pitkinemergency.org for a host of related information, including a link to the firewise site.

Conditions in the national forest are prime for wildfires this summer, though a monsoon season could change things dramatically, Fitzwilliams pointed out. Drought conditions are predicted for western Colorado through July.

"I'm not here, by any means, to push a panic button, because weather is weather," he said.

Nonetheless, soil moisture in the Aspen area should be at 60 to 70 percent at this time of the year; instead, it's at 5 to 10 percent, he said. And fuel content in the vegetation is off-the-charts high.

"Everything's lining up for a fire season that could be pretty severe," Fitzwilliams said.

The Bureau of Land Management has begun to discuss a fire ban on lands it manages, and the Forest Service, which manages lands at a generally higher elevation, is likely to follow suit, according to Fitzwilliams.

"I would expect that it's not far off for the BLM, and we'll follow shortly behind them," he said.

A ban will mean no campfires on federal land outside developed campgrounds. A fire ban is already in effect in Pitkin County, though it doesn't apply to federal lands.

It has been about a decade since the valley has faced a considerable risk for wildfire, Fitzwilliams noted, and such events tend to come in cycles.

"The writing's on the wall," he said, given the conditions that have developed so far. "Plus, we're due. It's been 10, 11 years since we had a significant fire season."

janet@aspentimes.com


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The Aspen Times Updated May 16, 2012 06:23AM Published May 16, 2012 01:47AM Copyright 2012 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.