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County eyes wildfire plan

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Can something be done to reduce the risk of a catastrophic wildfire in the Castle Creek Valley and on Red Mountain?

Pitkin County is spearheading an effort to find out.

A steering committee chaired by Commissioner Patti Clapper is poised to receive a $12,000 grant to study the issue. County commissioners have already approved the grant on first reading; a public hearing and, possibly, final approval to accept the money is scheduled May 14.

With the funds in hand, the broad-based group is expected to come up with a plan to reduce the fire risk. Removing some of the vegetation that would fuel a blaze is a likely component of the plan.

Accepting the money does not commit the county to taking any action, other than fulfilling the terms of the grant contract and coming up with a fire mitigation plan, Clapper assured fellow commissioners last month.

“It’s going to obligate us to do the things identified in the grant,” she said. “Once this plan is formulated, we can go back for further grants.”

“This grant opens the door to further monies for actual mitigation,” added Darryl Grob, Aspen fire chief.

The money comes from the White River National Forest, funneled through the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments. The federal agency is looking for plans to reduce fuel loads in areas where urban development abuts national forest land, as it does in many areas of Pitkin County.

The Castle Creek Valley, south of Aspen, and mansion-laden Red Mountain, north of town, are prime examples of areas where the risk of wildfire is high and a blaze would threaten key resources – a list that is always topped by human life in Grob’s mind.

The two areas targeted for study are very different, but equally significant, according to the fire chief.

The upper Castle Creek Valley contains some private homes and other development, the historic ghost town of Ashcroft, wildlife habitat and the headwaters of the creek, from which Aspen draws much of its municipal water supply.

“It is a major watershed for the city of Aspen,” Grob said.

The valley contains some old groves of trees, including standing dead trees that burn quickly, he noted.

Last summer, one of those trees fell on a power line in high winds, sparking a blaze that was extinguished before it got out of control thanks to the quick effort of area residents, according to Grob.

Nonetheless, firefighters found themselves, or at least their truck, trapped, he said.

“It was very spooky. There were dead trees crashing all around us,” Grob said. “We had to literally take a chain saw to clear a roadway back out of there.”

Clearing out some of that standing deadfall, as it’s called, would be a logical step to reduce wildfire risk in the area, he said.

On the other end of the spectrum is Red Mountain, which contains a lot of pricey real estate and residents who depend on a single access road.

“The actual wildfire potential is fairly high, given the fuels, the south-facing aspect and the upward wind potential we have there,” Grob noted. “And, there’s only one way up and one way down.

“Red Mountain has all the identifiers, in terms of a high-hazard area.”

As part of the planning, fire hazards will be mapped, as will “community values,” be they homes or other resources. One map can then be placed over the other to identify the spots where efforts to reduce the hazard should occur, according to an outline of the proposed study. Specific actions to reduce the hazard in those priority areas will be recommended as part of the plan.

What can be done on Red Mountain, where dry scrub oak provides a volatile fuel, is something planners hope to find out, Grob said. Clear cutting the vegetation is not what’s envisioned, he stressed.

Although the study will focus on a couple of target areas, the resulting proposals may have broader application throughout the Aspen Fire Protection District, Grob said.

The steering committee, which first convened in March, includes representation from the city of Aspen, the fire department, Division of Wildlife, Congressman Scott McInnis’ office, state and federal forest officials, and the Aspen Wilderness Workshop. Ellen Anderson, county emergency services coordinator, is the administrator assigned to oversee the planning effort.

[Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com]


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