Basalt firefighters back 90 percent of Gems’ plan |

Basalt firefighters back 90 percent of Gems’ plan

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

BASALT – Basalt Fire District officials said Tuesday they support the designation of roughly 90 percent of the Hidden Gems Wilderness proposal in their district, but are still negotiating over Basalt Mountain and part of Red Table Mountain.

John Young, a member of the fire district’s board of directors, said the firefighters believe some of the remaining 10 percent could be designated Wilderness after some fuels are removed. The fire district believes a smaller part of the 10 percent of the mountain is unacceptable as Wilderness, he said.

The fire district and Hidden Gems proponents have been fighting for about a month over designation of certain lands on Basalt Mountain and a small part of Red Table Mountain. Fire district officials formerly said they were opposed to any lands on Basalt Mountain getting designated Wilderness. The Hidden Gems proposal includes 12,570 acres on the mountain.

The fire district officials outlined their concerns on the disputed lands Tuesday in a meeting with the Pitkin County commissioners.

Young said the fight between the firefighters and Wilderness advocates “doesn’t feel right.” So representatives of the two sides have been working “feverishly” for the last 10 days on a compromise.

“I think we’re on the right track here,” he said.

Wilderness Workshop board of directors president Tim McFlynn concurred. “The upshot of this is we’re 90 percent in agreement” even before negotiations, he told the commissioners.

The two sides hope to reach an agreement within two weeks. The fire district hired consultant Eric Petterson of Rocky Mountain Ecological Services to undertake a detailed study of the condition of trees and other vegetation on Basalt Mountain, factor in the prevailing winds and average humidity, then use computer modeling to show how a wildfire there could affect the town of Basalt, parts of Missouri Heights and other developed areas.

What “we’re trying to do is supply objective, reliable data to the firefighters,” Petterson said, adding that the information could be useful for Hidden Gems proponents and U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, who is considering if he wants to introduce a Wilderness bill based on the Hidden Gems campaign.

Petterson said one of his tasks was to show what lands in the study areas on Basalt Mountain and part of Red Table Mountain are too steep for use of motorized equipment for firefighting or fuel reduction. It turns out it is a “substantial swath,” he said. The fire district won’t object to those lands being designated Wilderness. The district essentially objects to Wilderness designation on lands closest to developed areas, dubbed “urban interface” in firefighting parlance, according to Young.

Pitkin County Commissioner chairman George Newman said the “$64,000 question” in his mind is how Wilderness designation would affect the fire district’s ability to reduce fuels or fight fires on Basalt Mountain. When it is fire season, U.S. Forest Service officials should be easily accessible to grant permission for the fire department to enter Wilderness, he said.

But fire district officials insisted it might add time for them to secure permission to fight a fire in Wilderness. In some cases the Forest Service follows a let-it-burn policy in Wilderness, said fire district board member Bob Guion, and that has occasionally resulted in out-of-control fires.

“A lot of people have questions about the fallibility of their federal government,” Guion said.

Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson said he is confident his department would get quick decisions for firefighting from the current administration at the White River National Forest, but he said personnel will change. If permission isn’t granted as readily in the future, he is concerned about the risk of loss of lives and property damage from a catastrophic wildfire that starts on Basalt Mountain.

The fire department has responded to 61 wildfires in or near the proposed Hidden Gems Wilderness areas in the last seven years. Most were ignited by lightning strikes.

Young noted that wildfires have destroyed or threatened houses five times in the last decade between Missouri Heights and New Castle.

“We don’t think we’re crying Chicken Little here,” he said.

Wilderness Workshop will hire its own fire ecology expert just to make sure. The organization’s expert will review the fire district’s study, said Wilderness Workshop Executive Director Sloan Shoemaker.

But partnership was the mood of the day. Shoemaker said blame for the “fireworks” between the Hidden Gems campaign and fire district falls on his shoulders. As the lead organization on the Gems plan, it could have been more proactive with the fire district, he said. Instead, it adopted a stance after working on the campaign for a while where it would negotiate with parties that complained about lands being designated Wilderness.

“We mistakenly assumed that silence meant there wasn’t a problem,” Shoemaker said.