Firefighters and Gems still split on Basalt Mountain
June 11, 2010
BASALT – The Basalt fire department and Hidden Gems Wilderness proponents have reached a basic agreement on how to tweak boundaries on Red Table Mountain but remain divided over Basalt Mountain, officials on both sides said this week.
“We have an agreement on how we’ll handle one half of Basalt Mountain,” Bob Guion, chairman of the Basalt Fire District board of directors, told the Basalt Town Council.
The fire department doesn’t object to a Wilderness designation for roughly the eastern half of Basalt Mountain, Guion said. Much of the terrain is so steep on that side of the peak that firefighting by vehicle or foot wouldn’t be practical, he said.
But the district doesn’t want Wilderness extended to an area generally west of Toner Creek, according to Guion. District officials are concerned that Wilderness designation “effectively ends our efforts to create more defensible space” and “restricts fire suppression strategies and tactics,” according to a slide show presented to the Town Council.
Basalt Mountain and surrounding terrain is particularly susceptible to lightning strikes, fire district data show. The forest hasn’t burned for years and trees don’t have much age diversity, so there is lots of fuel for a wildfire, Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson said.
Fire district officials are convinced that a Wilderness designation for the west side of the mountain raises potential hurdles that would impede their ability to respond quickly enough to a fire to knock it down before it gets out of control. Firefighting in Wilderness areas is allowed by the U.S. Forest Service, but sometimes only after valuable time is taken to determine if it should be allowed to burn, Guion said.
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If a fire got out of hand while it was being assessed, that would force the department into a “defensive mode” to protect the town of Basalt and surrounding development if a catastrophic fire broke out, Thompson said. It takes one fire truck to protect three structures from a raging wildfire.
“That’s in defensive mode, which is what we’d be in if Basalt Mountain [were] on fire,” he said.
Fire experts have said there aren’t enough fire trucks on the West Slope to protect Basalt if that scenario unfolded, according to Guion.
“We’re not trying to be overdramatic. This is reality for us,” he said.
If a wildlife swept over Basalt Mountain and approached town, the likely firefighting strategy would be to use Midland Avenue as a line of defense and evacuate the Hill District and other homes on the lower slopes of Basalt Mountain, Thompson said. Too few homeowners on the mountainside have created defensible space around their property to stop the spread of fire.
Fire district officials have expressed their concerns to U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, who is considering whether or not to introduce a Wilderness bill. Guion said Polis was informed that the district will not negotiate on Wilderness on the west side of Basalt Mountain. It would accept a different designation that offers slightly less protection than Wilderness. A “companion” designation would retain firefighting and fuel reduction ability but provide the protections sought by environmentalists, according to Guion.
The fire district’s position is based on a scientific study by a local fire expert who looked at the forest health and composition on Basalt Mountain, prevailing weather and models for fire behavior.
“We don’t negotiate on public safety,” Guion said.
Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Wilderness Workshop, which is coordinating the Hidden Gems effort, told the Basalt Town Council he was encouraged by negotiations with the fire district and confident they will reach an agreement.
“We will find a middle ground,” he said. “We will find a solution to this.”
The meeting had the potential for fireworks or at least some discomfort since council members Pete McBride and Karin Teague were among a group that signed a letter criticizing the fire district for its opposition to the Hidden Gems. The meeting was amicable, with the council receptive to the information. Board members listened but didn’t take sides in the debate. Teague didn’t attend. Town officials said she was out of town.
Shoemaker, the firefighters and the council agreed that once the Basalt Mountain issue is settled, the entities must work together in an effort to reduce fuels and add defensible space around developments. That will require Basalt to beef up wildfire mitigation rules in its land use code.