Forest Service aims to gain support for prescribed burns in Roaring Fork Valley

Officials point to recent projects’ success in reducing fire fuels and improving wildlife habitat

With mega-fires starting to affect Colorado’s drought-stricken forests and home development continuing unabated on private lands next to the forests, federal officials are trying to earn public support for preventative measures.

The White River National Forest undertook four prescribed burns last spring that covered about 3,800 acres. U.S. Forest Service officials said Friday the work was beneficial but only a sliver of what is needed. The White River National Forest covers 2.3 million acres from Rifle to Summit County and Independence Pass to the Flat Tops north of Glenwood Springs.

“Part of the reason we have to do this, if you look back over the last 75 years, is Smokey the Bear has been pretty successful,” Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Kevin Warner said Friday. “We as a society have really suppressed a lot more fires. Now we’re seeing some of the challenges that come with that.”

Colorado had its three largest wildfires ever in 2020 and that didn’t include the Grizzly Creek Fire, which continues to bring consequences to Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon.

White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said the evidence is clear that public land management agencies need to be more aggressive about prescribed fire and beneficial management of natural fires, when appropriate.

“We’ve got to get people on board because we’re going to have fire,” Fitzwilliams said. “We’ve got to get going. I think there’s a little bit of urgency we’re all feeling. All you have to do is watch California and what we had in Colorado last year.”

While the Roaring Fork Valley has been spared from wildfire so far this year, patchy smoke through a good chunk of the summer is a reminder of how the West is burning. Climate change has intensified droughts that are weakening trees and making them more susceptible to disease and bugs. Will the growing threat of wildfires build public support for preventative action such as prescribed burns or spook people to the point they demand immediate extinguishing of any fire?

“We’ve got to do a better job of communicating and educating people about what the realities are,” Fitzwilliams said. “I wish we could go back in time and see how many fewer trees there were 100, 150 years ago, before we started putting out fires. We have more trees than ever was natural, yet we fall in love with every one of them, and we end up paying a price. We’ve got to figure that out.”

One of last year’s prescribed burns in the Roaring Fork Valley occurred in Collins Creek, rugged territory 9 miles north of Aspen. The drainage is north and upstream from the late George Stranahan’s Flying Dog Ranch on Woody Creek Road.

Dan Nielsen, a fuels specialist for the forest, was the firing boss for that project May 7. He directed the release of about 7,000 incendiary devices about the size of Ping-Pong balls from a helicopter. The devices were dropped about every 100 feet and started multiple small fires. Snow on the high ridges kept the fire contained.

Nielsen led a hike to the site Friday to show how the area looks four months later. The fire charred thickets of oak brush and serviceberry bushes dominate the dry, south-facing landscape between 7,500 and 9,000 feet in elevation in the Collins Creek drainage. Out of the 1,200-acre burn area, 800 to 900 acres actually were affected by fire, Nielsen said. Small aspen trees have already proliferated in the burn area along with grasses and new shoots of oak and serviceberry.

“This is the perfect result,” Nielsen said. “This is what we’re looking for.”

The duel purpose of the project was to improve wildlife habitat and create firebreaks. The area is critical winter range for deer and elk. Enhanced wildlife habitat and fuels reduction go hand-in-hand, Nielsen said.

“When you sit here all summer and deal with smoke from 1,000 miles away, it should make us all realize we can’t avoid this.” — Scott Fitzwilliams, White River National Forest supervisor

It’s hard to see the effects of the fire until in the thick of the burn area. Then, charred trees pop into view and charred wood covers parts of the ground.

“The key is that was a low-intensity burn,” Nielsen said. “We’re not burning the nutrients out of the soil.”

The result is a mosaic on the landscape — areas where old brush burned and new vegetation is taking root, and patches where the old growth remained.

“It breaks up the continuity in case a wildfire comes in here,” Nielsen said. The area will likely be ripe for another burn in 10 or so years, he said.

Phil Nyland, wildlife biologist with the White River, said the Collins Creek project paid instant dividends for wildlife.

“In the next few growing seasons, even more browse will be available as shrubs continue to grow taller than the height of the snow,” he said via email. “Grass and flowering plants, which big game forage on in summer, are dormant or buried under the snow, so the woody stems of shrubs and trees are an important primary food source for elk and mule deer.”

Nyland said projects undertaken by the Forest Service, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and other partners would improve habitat for elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep and other native wildlife across 45,000 acres over a 10-year period.

Warner said there are five prescribed fire projects planned over the next two to three years along with another five mechanical treatments, where machines are used to thin trees and other vegetation in areas where prescribed fire isn’t an option. The planned projects will probably cover 6,000 to 8,000 acres, Warner said. It is a start, but the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District sprawls across more than 700,000 acres.

Fitzwilliams, who has held his post for nearly 12 years, said the public acceptance of prescribed burns and mechanical treatment has slowly increased during his tenure. He said treatments should occur on a broad landscape scale, not just on a few isolated projects.

“I think we’ve made some headway,” Fitzwilliams said. “When you sit here all summer and deal with smoke from 1,000 miles away, it should make us all realize we can’t avoid this. Let’s figure out how to manage it, even then there’s no guarantees.”

More Like This, Tap A Topic