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Big burn planned for Basalt Mountain

Firefighters with the federal government hope to ignite a massive blaze on Basalt Mountain within the next few weeks to reduce the threat of wildfires later in the summer.

Firefighters are working on a plan to burn 3,000 acres on Basalt Mountain over the next two or three years. That’s an area about the size of Snowmass Ski Area.

If the project proceeds as planned, people throughout the Roaring Fork Valley and particularly in the midvalley will take note due to huge plumes of smoke. The agencies participating in the prescribed burn are trying to get the word out in advance to let people know the project is planned.

Frankie Romero is heading the project as the fire management officer for the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit, a cooperative effort between the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. He said homeowners in Missouri Heights and El Jebel will understandably be nervous when they see all the smoke.

Two major fires have struck Glenwood Springs twice in the last 10 years. The Panorama fire destroyed two homes and threatened numerous other in Missouri Heights during the dry summer of 2002.

People are already on alert this year because of dry conditions earlier this spring and the huge Picnic Rock fire west of Fort Collins. Even controlled burns in the Roaring Fork Valley floor have made people jumpy and promoted a few calls to fire departments.

Romero said the massive burn planned on Basalt Mountain will inevitably startle some people, despite efforts to publicize it in advance.

“The volume of smoke we’re going to produce is greater than they’ve seen this spring,” he said.

Romero said the project is desperately needed to clear dense oak brush and other vegetation from Basalt Mountain. The targeted area is about four miles north of Basalt, close to where public lands abut subdivisions.

Romero said there is a fear that a wildfire could endanger lives and property, but fire managers also fear that fire from one of the homes could spread throughout the mountainside and beyond.

“A large fire up on top of Basalt Mountain could affect those communities,” said Romero. “It could [also] run the length of the Fryingpan.”

Romero’s crews will concentrate on terrain east of Spring Reservoir on Missouri Heights this spring. That’s the most northern point in the project.

Firefighters will use natural and manmade geographic features, like rock falls and ATV tracks, to create fire breaks to contain the blaze. Not all of the 3,000 targeted acres will be burned at once. But up to half could go this spring, according to Romero.

While these types of projects are often called “controlled burns,” Romero steers clear of that term.

“That makes it sound like it’s an oven where we can turn it off and on at will,” he said. “We’re controlling the perimeter of the burn.” But inside that perimeter, conditions resemble a wildfire.

“There’s never zero risk with prescribed fire, but the risk is a lot less than what we are dealing with wildfires in the heat of the summer,” Romero said.

As many as 30 firefighters will be working the fire. Smaller crews will establish smaller fires on the perimeters, building what’s called black lines, before the big conflagration.

The fire will kill large, established oak brush and allow new shoots to establish in following years. If fire ever breaks out in that terrain, it will be more effective to drop retardant in the smaller brush, Romero explained.

The Basalt Mountain project, officially called the Roaring Fork Prescribed Burn, is the largest project of its type in the central zone, which stretches from Parachute to Glenwood Springs and from Aspen to Meeker.

The federal agencies will establish a viewing area at a great vantage point on Cattle Creek Road, Romero said.

The project couldn’t start before now because the window of opportunity wasn’t open, according to Hal Coombs, assistant fire management officer. The terrain targeted for the burn is between 7,500 and 8,500 feet in elevation. It was still saturated and even had snow in some areas until recently because of the aspect.

The window to do such a project is after the terrain loses its snow and dries out but before spring rains make it green up. Romero said if rainy weather persists and vegetation in the burn area turns green, the project could be postponed until next year.

“We’d like to see it [finished] sooner than later,” he said. “Every year we wait is another year of fire danger.”

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com


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