Large-scale wildfire mitigation project starting this summer in Snowmass | AspenTimes.com

Large-scale wildfire mitigation project starting this summer in Snowmass

Jill Beathard
Snowmass Sun

Snowmass Village will undergo its largest wildfire mitigation project ever when work begins in the Ridge Run area this June.

Covering about 54 acres of common property held by the Snowmass Homeowners Association, contractors hired by the Snowmass-Wildcat Fire Protection District will remove about 2,000 dead standing trees in the neighborhood this summer. While it will be far from completely addressing Snowmass' wildfire risk, it's an important first step in protecting the residents and property of the village, said Fire Marshal John Mele.

This particular project got started with the help of homeowner Heinz Simon. Simon realized the severity of the threat to the properties he owns in Snowmass Village and proposed a challenge to the fire district: If they could raise $100,000 for mitigation efforts, he would match it.

Mele jumped on the opportunity and recruited equal part contributions from the town of Snowmass Village and the Snowmass Homeowners Association in addition to funds from the Fire Department. Simon's only caveat was that the district start with the Ridge Run neighborhood, so that's why this summer's project will be focused there.

This project has been a long time coming. Wildfire mitigation has been a priority of the Snowmass Homeowners Association since Rick Griffin was president. Griffin worked with Mele and then Pitkin County Wildfire Mitigation Specialist Darryl Grob to get some mitigation work done on a hillside on Brush Creek Road in 2014 and campaigned to get more residents involved in prevention.

Even with the grant money secured, though, this project took time to get started. Mele sought the help of the town Community Development Department to map the lots to be cleared and interviewed contractors. The district is also trying to respect seasonal trail closures in place in the areas to be addressed while also being careful about interaction with trail users. And there's road weight limits on some of the neighborhood's streets during the winter.

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"(Working) so close to homes, I think it takes more of a delicate touch and more concern for the end product," Mele said.

Carbondale-based business Western Vegetation Management has been hired to do the work. It will use a feller buncher to cut the dead trees down and bundle them for removal.

While materials removed in the Brush Creek Road mitigation project have yet to be burned (a scheduled burn of the slash piles was recently called off when conditions didn't allow it), trees removed in this project will be completely hauled out of the village to be utilized as firewood as much as possible.

"We estimate we're removing about 2,000 dead standing trees," said Mike Uncapher, owner of Western Vegetation Management. "Clearly leaving all those scattered around in the open space would not work."

While the work is only scheduled at this time for the common areas and town-owned land in the Ridge Run subdivision, Mele hopes homeowners will be encouraged to have their properties inspected and worked on as well. Unfortunately, there aren't tax incentives or even insurance benefits for homeowners to have preventive work done, and the district has no plans to use its grant money on private property at this time.

But because Western Vegetation Management will already be in Snowmass working, it might be able to offer services at a discounted rate, Mele said. And the Fire Department always offers free home evaluations to anyone living in the district.

Impacts

Contractors will be working on the mitigation project from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, with the exception of major holidays. Much of the work is right along the road, so Faraway and Ridge roads may be down to one lane at times, Mele said. But traffic should be able to get through with the exception of short time periods when bundles of trees are being lifted and loaded onto trailers. The whole project should take six to eight weeks.

And while it's an important first step, mitigating Ridge Run's fire risk is far from over with this project. Dead trees pose an aesthetic problem, are a safety hazard if they fall onto a person or property and are a huge danger to firefighters during a wildfire scenario, Uncapher said.

However, there will still be lots of work to be done once the dead trees are removed, he said. Getting those out of the way makes it easier and safer to move forward with the rest of the work that needs to be done.

"This project, from my perspective … is step one of a multi-step process," Uncapher said.

Mele is encouraged by the enthusiasm shown by residents, the homeowners association and the town, which made its biggest contribution to wildfire prevention yet with its contribution to this project.

jill@snowmasssun.com

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