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Basalt fire board objects to part of Gems

Janet Urquhart The Aspen Times
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BASALT – The Basalt Fire District’s board of directors voted 4-0 Wednesday to oppose portions of the Hidden Gems Wilderness Campaign over concerns it will impede firefighters when battling blazes on Basalt Mountain.

The resolution passed by the board said reclassification of 12,570 acres on Basalt Mountain to Wilderness will restrict roads and trails currently used to fight fires; require more costly approvals from the U.S. Forest Service to take action; “effectively end” efforts to reduce fuels, like downed and dying trees; create additional hardship for search and rescue missions; and “increase the likelihood that catastrophic fires could occur that threaten the residents of Basalt, El Jebel, Missouri Heights and the Fryingpan Valley.”

Fire district board member John Young questioned why Basalt was even considered for Wilderness. It has civilization on three sides, creating a wildlands-urban interface area where it is critical to try to prevent and suppress wildfires, he said.

“I have to vehemently oppose this. You’re putting our citizenry at risk,” Young said. He later added: “As emotional as you are about expanding Wilderness, we are about protecting our citizenry.”

Board President Ed Van Walraven said he didn’t want to risk losing homes and possibly lives to fire because the option was eliminated to aggressively fight fire on Basalt Mountain.

The motion was also supported by board members Bob Guion and Robert Woods.

Basalt Mountain is a small part of a proposal by conservation groups to designate about 379,000 acres in western Colorado as Wilderness. Wilderness proponents excluded the main road up Basalt Mountain as well as several popular trails for mountain bikers from the proposed Wilderness boundary. Several less-traveled routes utilized in the past by the fire department are part of the Wilderness proposal.

The fire district board’s vote followed an 11th-hour effort Monday by representatives of the firefighters and Wilderness coalition to negotiate a compromise. Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Wilderness Workshop, said that language in existing Wilderness authorization maintains the right to reduce fuels before a fire strikes and to use motorized equipment to fight fires.

“It seems like Congress is saying you guys can do what you want to do,” he said.

But Guion and Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson countered that the leeway of Wilderness rules isn’t always applied so clearly by the U.S. Forest Service. The Forest Service is reluctant to approve use of motorized vehicles in Wilderness for firefighting or fuel reduction. Guion’s research indicated it has never been granted in Colorado.

Their hunch was reinforced during the Monday meeting by comments from Bill Hahnenberg, fire management officer for the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management in Grand Junction.

The use of mechanized tools like chainsaws and motorized vehicles is prohibited in Wilderness, with firefighting being the exception. Hahnenberg said the use of helicopter crews, smokejumpers and crews wielding chainsaws is relatively simple. It requires approval by the forest supervisor.

But use of motorized equipment requires additional approval by the regional forester in Denver, Hahnenberg said. He acknowledged that “a strong case” would have to be made to earn approval for motorized uses in Wilderness.

The same general rules apply to fuels reduction. Hand crews could use chainsaws to remove downed trees. Getting approval to use heavy equipment for logging in a Wilderness area, even to ease fire threat, would be difficult.

Hahnenberg stressed that the federal firefighters understand that fires on Basalt Mountain in many circumstances present a serious threat to the town, and that the agencies would often fight fires aggressively.

When conditions are right, like in late September when precipitation is likely, fires might be allowed to burn on Basalt Mountain, regardless of whether or not it is Wilderness, Hahnenberg said.

Basalt firefighters are often the first responders when lightning starts a small fire on Basalt Mountain. Thompson estimated the department responds to six wildfires there during dry summers. It is vital for them to use motorized equipment, like special trucks or small, six-wheel-drive vehicles.

“We’re a bunch of engine slugs,” Guion said. “We fight fires by driving to them.

“We’re not a bunch of hand crews. We don’t have a lot of 20-year-olds we can call up.”

Thompson said Basalt Mountain is of particular concern to him because it hosts an old, unhealthy forest with lots of fuels susceptible to burning. Prevailing winds push fires from northwest to southeast, and a raging fire could send embers raining down on the town. The result would be a “catastrophic fire” for Basalt, he said.

“I don’t want to take a chance on my watch,” Thompson said.

Because of that concern, Guion said the fire department couldn’t support Hidden Gems. “At the end of the day, we see more detriment than good,” he said.

Thompson asked Shoemaker if there was an alternative designation that could be given to Basalt Mountain that provides the protection wanted by the Wilderness advocates but addresses the fire department’s concerns.

“I’m trying to find something so we don’t walk out of here at an impasse,” he said.

Shoemaker indicated talks can continue, even after a Hidden Gems proposal is submitted to U.S. Rep. Jared Polis for review. Polis will be approached possibly as early as this month to see if he will sponsor a bill.

Shoemaker said the firefighters’ actions won’t actually maintain the ability to use motorized equipment to remove fuels from Basalt Mountain. The Forest Service considers the area an inventoried roadless area, prohibiting the creation of new roads. That restriction exists regardless of whether of not Basalt Mountain becomes Wilderness, he said.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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