Summit tallies up wildfire project costs
September 7, 2008
SUMMIT COUNTY ” Timber crews have treated about 400 acres of potential wildfire hot spots locally in the last three years, but they still have 8,600 acres to go ” at an estimated total cost of $38.7 million ” according to the Summit County Wildfire Council.
Realistically, the county will be able to treat only about a third of most fire-prone forests around neighborhoods where trees and brush need to be thinned and removed, officials said at a council meeting this week. Those limited efforts would cost about $13.3 million, said assistant county manager Steve Hill, who outlined a 12-year funding plan based partially on the passage of a county ballot measure that would raise $500,000 annually for reducing fire risks.
The wildfire council reviewed 28 completed projects and issued a report card of sorts, grading them according to their cost-effectiveness and on the basis of how well the work helps protect the areas.
Nine projects were rated as “good,” 14 received a “fair” grade, while five projects were described as “poor,” according to Paul Cada with the Colorado State Forest Service.
One of the biggest problems in terms of cost is having to go back and treat the same area more than once because property owners have removed only some of the fire-prone trees and vegetation, said wildfire-mitigation officer Patti McGuire.
She said, however, that she is seeing steady improvements in the quality of work.
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“The projects getting larger and better,” she said.
Using satellite mapping and the latest fire-risk models, the local wildfire council has identified 27 areas of concern.
Among particularly high-risk areas are the Acorn Creek subdivision in the Lower Blue valley, where there are pockets of heavy fuel, and the Ptarmigan neighborhood near Silverthorne, where homes are spread across a steep hillside connected by a network of relatively narrow dirt roads.
“That continues to be problematic, in our view,” McGuire said.
Fueled by additional sunlight reaching the ground because of the death of pine trees, vegetation growth has increased the fire risk in some neighborhoods over the past three years, said U.S. Forest Service fire expert Ross Wilmore.
“The grass is starting to come in, and the shrub layer is starting to thicken,” he said. “For me, the main driver is what’s going on at the surface.”
Dry grasses and shrubs are “ladder fuels” that enable fires to spread and climb into the tree tops, leading to more intense fires.
“We’re looking at a fuel model that’s a little bit flashier at low elevation. We boosted some areas into more of a moderate fire risk category from low,” Wilmore said.
The economics of fire mitigation remains a key challenge, especially with the rising cost of fuel.
Beetle-killed lodgepoles don’t have high value as timber to begin with. The expense of trucking them to a mill is almost prohibitive, said Howard Hallman, who helped coordinate a small-scale forest-health project along Straight Creek, in the watershed that supplies Dillon with its domestic supply.
Standing among piles of logs near the Straight Creek trailhead, Hallman said that some of the logs likely will end up at the pellet plant in Kremmling, which pays only $10 to $20 per ton of wood, because trucking them to a mill in Pueblo is simply too expensive.
Still, the Straight Creek project is a good example of finding the means to get crucial work done cooperatively. State grant money funds the work on national forest land, helping to protect a local town’s water supply, Hallman said.
Several local contractors have declined to tackle local projects because they can’t make sufficient profit, according to Hallman.
There’s a huge gap between what the Forest Service is willing to pay and the on-the-ground cost of doing the work, said Jerry Andrew, an associate forestry tech professor at Colorado Mountain College in Leadville.
The federal agency is offering contracts at about $1,500 to $2,000 per acre, and the local projects have cost an average of $4,500 an acre.
The real costs, based on counting trees per acre and determining the number of workers needed, is more like $6,000 to $8,000 per acre in many cases, Andrew said.
The bottom line is that federal subsidies, state grants and private homeowner contributions will continue to be crucial to reducing fire risks in the so-called red zone, around homes and important water, power and recreational facilities.
Finding federal dollars is tough because Colorado has not been able to lobby effectively, said Democratic state Rep. Christine Scanlan. Part of the reason is the relatively junior status of the state’s congressional delegation, she said. And the political reality is that Colorado just doesn’t have much clout on the national level compared with bigger states like California.
On the bright side, Scanlan said that Democratic U.S. Rep. John Salazar could be in line for a seat on the House Appropriations Committee, a slot that could help him direct more federal money to the state.
On a larger scale, task-force members expressed concerns about wildfire risk to the national power grid, explaining that aluminum power-line towers are susceptible to melting in a big fire. Even a localized fire in the Colorado mountains could knock out Denver’s power supply and impact the entire national system.