Feds propose burn on Basalt Mtn. | AspenTimes.com

Feds propose burn on Basalt Mtn.

Federal officials say that Basalt Mountain is in desperate need of a prescribed burn that would reduce the risk of wildfire but also drastically change the face of the prominent peak.

The feds are proposing a prescribed burn on 2,800 acres of lands held by the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Colorado Division of Wildlife. The burn would start in spring 2004 under the proposed scenario.

Frankie Romero, a fire chief with the federal Upper Colorado Fire Management Unit, said Basalt Mountain is being targeted because natural fuels have built to a dangerous level due to years of fire suppression. That comes at a time when development around the base of the peak has run rampant.

Romero said it was lucky that the entire mountain didn’t go up in flames during last summer’s Panorama fire. It was stopped by Spring Park Reservoir and the firefighters’ efforts. But thousands of acres remain susceptible to wildfire on Basalt Mountain.

“We know fires occur there on a pretty regular basis,” said Romero. “The natural fire cycle in oak brush is 30 to 60 years.” It doesn’t appear that a major fire has struck the targeted area for about 45 years, he said.

The prescribed burn is being proposed along Basalt Mountain’s waist – a band between the 7,400- and 8,600-foot elevation marks. That swath starts at a bench on the north side of the Christine State Wildlife Area and travels up the mountain to where the aspen trees start.

The lowest elevation of the prescribed burn would be about 800 feet or so higher up the mountain than the highest homes in places like Aspen Junction subdivision. Nevertheless, Romero expects the proposal will make some homeowners nervous because of publicity of wildfires that got out of control, most notably at Los Alamos.

He acknowledged that he prefers to say prescribed rather than controlled burn, because parts of the intentional fires are out of control. The fire crews that will work the fire will control the perimeter and “turn it loose” in the center, he said.

Romero said he views prescribed burns as a good tool to reduce the fire risk in areas where national lands abut populated areas. People never hear about the thousands of fires that are safely lit and controlled to reduce wildfire risk. “There are lots of good fires out there, more good fires than bad fires,” he said.

Planners expect to hear some concerns about the visual effects on the highly visible mountain. Oak brush covers the targeted area.

“It’s going to be black up there for some time,” said Romero. But he also noted that areas that have burned, like the hillsides charred in West Glenwood Springs by the Coal Seam Fire, really turned green with the precipitation this spring. Basalt Mountain’s terrain will also bounce back.

The U.S. Forest Service’s Sopris District Ranger is accepting public comments about the plan in a process known as scoping. A copy of the proposal can be obtained from the Sopris Ranger District in Carbondale. Questions can be directed to Romero at 970-625-2872. Written comments can be sent to Bill Westbrook, Sopris District Ranger, 620 Main St., Carbondale, CO 81623.

Romero said studies will be conducted throughout the next year. The earliest work could be performed is spring 2004. “We’re about a year away from lighting a match,” he said.

The duration of the project is unknown. Romero said it will take at least two years and maybe up to five to complete the job. Weather and environmental conditions allow only a short window of time each spring for prescribed burns.

Tom Newland, a homeowner in the Aspen Junction subdivision, credited the federal agencies for working with the public well before the prescribed burn would start. He led opposition to a plan by the Colorado Division of Wildlife to log 100 acres of lower Basalt Mountain in the state wildlife area.

That proposed work would have essentially clear-cut the hillside immediately above the homes of Newland and his neighbors. Newland said he didn’t hear anything about the project until the wildlife division was ready to start. The state agency has since delayed the work at least until December.

Newland said he couldn’t offer an opinion yet on the proposed prescribed burn because he hasn’t seen the plan. However, he said he generally favors using fire as a tool to control wildfires.

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

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