Forest Service assesses effects of Wilderness on firefighting
BASALT – Turning Basalt Mountain into Wilderness wouldn’t prohibit firefighting there but it would eliminate opportunities to reduce dead trees and fuels that have built up for decades, the top official in the White River National Forest said Wednesday.
Basalt firefighters and Wilderness activists disagreed with parts of the assessment made by Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams, showing how difficult it is to sort through some implications of the Hidden Gems Wilderness Campaign.
Fitzwilliams said the Forest Service assesses and makes an appropriate response to every fire in the national forest, regardless of whether or not it is in Wilderness.
In a location like Basalt Mountain, the decision to fight a fire will be made most of the time, Fitzwilliams said. “Whether that’s Wilderness or not, the response is probably going to be the same,” he said.
Whenever a fire poses a threat to the town of Basalt or homes in Missouri Heights, the decision would be made to fight the fire, he said. Fires in Wilderness areas are allowed to burn when they don’t pose a threat to lives, houses or infrastructure.
Fitzwilliams conceded that federal land managers are responsible for leaving Wilderness “pretty much as it is.” Using heavy equipment to gouge a fire break in the earth, for example, might require an extra call for clearance, he said.
That’s why the Basalt Fire Department is concerned. Fire Chief Scott Thompson said that, with all due respect to the Forest Service, the written rules and the application of rules aren’t always the same. Written rules that appear to provide flexibility can actually provide an extra hurdle.
The fire department typically handles the first response to wildfires on Basalt Mountain. Requiring an extra step of approval to fight a fire in a Wilderness area might take “hours or days,” Thompson said.
He said his assessment comes from practical, in the field experience in dealing with the Forest Service on Wilderness issues for 15 years as a former Pitkin County deputy sheriff and for 10 years as the fire chief. That experience indicates it won’t always be a speedy process to get approval to fight a fire in Wilderness. And that, he said, could result in a catastrophic fire for the homeowners of Basalt.
The fire district’s board of directors is scheduled to consider a resolution in opposition to the Hidden Gems Wilderness proposal on March 18. As it stands now, the board wants the entire 12,570 acres on Basalt Mountain removed from the Hidden Gems.
The proposal currently excludes the main Forest Service Road onto Basalt Mountain as well as some of the most popular trails.
Bob Guion, a fire officer and fire district board member in Basalt, said the opposition to Wilderness comes from having the public’s best interest in mind. Any delay in fighting a fire on Basalt Mountain can let a small, harmless fire grow into a raging blaze that neither the Basalt Fire Department nor the federal firefighting agencies can control.
He noted that the Storm King Fire near Glenwood Springs started when a single tree was on fire after a lighting strike. A wait-and-see approach resulted in a conflagration that resulted in the death of 14 firefighters who were overcome by flames on the mountain.
“We want to fight the lightning strikes so we don’t have to fight the catastrophic fires,” Guion said.
He said he understands the position of Wilderness activists and the Forest Service that the Wilderness Act allows mechanized and motorized uses to fight a fire. Like Thompson, he said legality and practicality are different.
Fitzwilliams, the forest supervisor, expressed a different concern about designating Basalt Mountain as Wilderness. He said reducing fuels to reduce the threat of a fire wouldn’t be an option if Basalt Mountain was a Wilderness area.
“That part of the tool box is the bigger concern to me,” Fitzwilliams said.
Wilderness prohibits mechanized and motorized uses – except during firefighting, he said.
Sloan Shoemaker, a representative of the coalition promoting Hidden Gems, said legislation can be crafted that answers the concerns of the Basalt Fire Department and Fitzwilliams. He said he understands the concerns of the firefighters that time is of the essence. He would support Hidden Gems authorizing language that makes it clear that firefighting by all means will occur when there is a threat to a community. There is also a precedent for language in Wilderness bills that allow fuel reduction as well.
Creation of the Hidden Gems Wilderness requires an act of U.S. Congress.
Thompson said any legislation needs to specifically allow “unobstructed firefighting.”
Fire department officials and Shoemaker are scheduled to meet next week for further discussions.
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Contact with two presumed positive COVID-19 cases has led to 65 students and staff at Basalt Elementary School transitioning to remote instruction.