Basalt firefighters not so hot for Gems proposal
BASALT – The Hidden Gems Wilderness Proposal is feeling heat from Basalt firefighters.
The Basalt Fire Protection District’s board of directors will consider a resolution March 18 to oppose to the Wilderness proposal. Fire department officials said their ability to protect the town of Basalt from a wildfire would be jeopardized if Basalt Mountain is designated Wilderness as proposed.
But conservation groups promoting the Wilderness campaign said Tuesday the fire department’s position is based on erroneous assumptions. Wilderness designation for Basalt Mountain will have no practical effect on the department’s firefighting ability or access to terrain, said Steve Smith, assistant regional director for the Wilderness Society.
He said the 1964 Wilderness Act explicitly allows for firefighting activity, with the use of machines, once a fire starts in Wilderness.
Representatives of the conservation groups promoting Hidden Gems and the fire department have met once to discuss concerns, but there is still a gulf in their outlook on how Wilderness would affect firefighting.
Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson said the department serves as the first response to wildfires even when they are on federal lands. And responses to Basalt Mountain are frequent. He estimated the department responds to six wildfires per summer on the mountain, usually when lightning strikes ignite dry timber.
The department often sends teams of three firefighters into the woods on custom-built six-wheel-drive vehicles that look like souped-up golf carts. The department’s two six-wheelers are small enough and powerful enough to maneuver along old logging roads and trails that criss-cross Basalt Mountain.
Bob Guion, a fire officer with the department and a member of the fire district’s board of directors, said quick response is vital.
“If we don’t move fast, we don’t suppress a small fire,” Guion said.
Department officials are concerned that Wilderness designation would either require extra time to get approval from the Forest Service to fight a fire, or eliminate firefighting altogether in the designated areas.
“Once you start the bureaucracy wheel turning, it may or may not be days for a decision,” Thompson said.
Guion said Basalt Mountain is a prominent feature affecting midvalley wildfires. The somewhat isolated peak has a lot of dead and dying timber. Lightning strikes frequently hit its flanks and is situated among prevailing winds that blow northwest to southeast. Even when a small fire ignites on the Missouri Heights side of the mountain, winds will push it toward the top and toward Basalt, Guion said.
“In this area, we fight every fire for obvious reasons,” Thompson said.
The fire department’s major concern is fire branding, when thousands of embers from a wildfire rise thousands of feet in the air, then rain down on roofs and decks. That shifts them from an aggressive, offensive position to defensive – a losing game of running from house to house to prevent fires from starting.
“We’re not even remotely crying wolf,” Guion said. “To think [a catastrophic fire] is not a danger is not facing reality.”
Thompson said the department’s issue with Hidden Gems is purely about firefighting, not the broader issue over access to public lands for recreation, which has dominated the debate. The fire department isn’t concerned about access to the deep heart of the woods. It’s concerned about areas on the fringe of development, known as the urban interface.
“I think 100 percent of Basalt Mountain is unacceptable to us,” he said. The department also wants a readjustment of the proposed Red Table Wilderness Area to pull the southern boundary that parallels Fryingpan Road further up the slope.
The Hidden Gems campaign would add about 380,000 acres of Wilderness in western Colorado, primarily lands in Pitkin, Eagle, Garfield, Gunnison and Summit counties. The Hidden Gems website says there are 12,570 acres on Basalt Mountain in the proposal.
The fire department senses a need to take a stand since the Hidden Gems’ proponents intend to forward a partial proposal to U.S. Rep. Jared Polis’ office by the end of March. Polis is a Democrat representing the 2nd Congressional District, which includes Eagle County and most of Basalt Mountain.
Smith of the Wilderness Society said the submission of a proposal simply triggers an entire new round of discussions. “That’s not the end of the story by any means,” he said. “There is plenty of time to get this right.”
He also said it was the proponents’ understanding that discussions with the Basalt Fire Department would continue. If so, he believes the firefighters’ concerns will be alleviated. The firefighting leeway presented by the 1964 Wilderness Act, and later clarifications, needs to be shared with the firefighters, he said. Wilderness generally prohibits mechanized and motorized uses; firefighting is an exception, Smith said.
Every national forest has a fire plan that dictates fuel reduction steps before fires and firefighting can occur, regardless of whether land is Wilderness or not. Fuel reduction, like clearing out dead trees with a chain saw, is often prohibited in Wilderness. Using chain saws in Wilderness for firefighting is a step allowed by local Forest Service officials, Smith said. And using tractors or other heavy equipment to clear fire breaks is cleared with an extra call, he said.
The Hidden Gems proponents don’t believe a Wilderness designation on Basalt Mountain would impede the fire department’s ability to suppress fires there, Smith said.
Ross Wilmore, fire management officer for the White River National Forest, couldn’t be reached Tuesday for comment on firefighting in Wilderness areas.
Smith noted that fire departments in Summit County and in Gypsum had concerns similar to those voiced by Basalt’s department. They were ironed out once firefighters learned Wilderness won’t restrict their efforts, he said.
Boundaries for the Gems were also altered to allow removal of beetle-kill trees in watersheds and other strategic areas of Summit County, Smith said.
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