Prescribed burn benefits forest on Basalt Mountain
November 3, 2014
The U.S. Forest Service is making regular efforts to reintroduce fire into the Roaring Fork Valley ecosystem, something officials say is long overdue.
The agency worked with partners Wednesday to successfully char mountain brush, gambol oak and aspen trees over 162 acres on Basalt Mountain. It's part of a multiyear effort to improve forest health and enhance wildlife habitat on 45,000 acres throughout the Roaring Fork River Basin.
Wednesday's prescribed burn came after about one year of planning, said prescribed fire and fuels specialist Jim Genung, of the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District.
"I would think some of the public thinks we're running out here with matches and going nuts," he said.
Instead, the agency takes a careful inventory of the land and its vegetation cover, considers all potential impacts, including effects on fisheries, and outlines the circumstances when a burn can be pursued.
Conditions were perfect Wednesday. A slight breeze blew the smoke away from the populated part of Missouri Heights and the Roaring Fork Valley floor. The grasses cured after recent frosts. The ground was dry after a rainy summer and fall, and the humidity was relatively low.
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Two engines and 20 firefighters from the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit and one engine each from the Basalt and Snowmass Village fire departments along with 10 local firefighters used drip torches to ignite small fires around the forest, just off Basalt Mountain Road. Some firefighters continue to monitor the area to make sure hotspots don't flare up and create an unattended fire.
The goal was to burn vegetation on between 50 percent and 75 percent of the terrain within the area.
"We're not looking to nuke the place," Genung said.
Instead, the idea is to mimic natural fires, which create a mosaic pattern where one section of forest is charred while it's barely touched just a few feet away. A tour of the terrain Friday confirmed that was the case. A football-field-sized swath on a hillside above a sweeping left turn on the old logging road was ground zero for part of the prescribed burn. Temperatures got high enough to obliterate the brush to ash. In other places, the forest floor was cleared of grass and brush, and some of the older, dead aspens had burned.
The clear pockets of forest will let more sunlight in. That will spur growth of aspen saplings, new brush and grasses — all of which will be good forage for deer and elk, Genung said.
Some of the aspen trees are in a declining stage on Basalt Mountain and throughout the White River National Forest. Fire suppression has interrupted natural cycles. Genung estimated that 20 percent of the aspens within Wednesday's burn area were dead or dying.
"For the most part, aspen would see some fire on a 100-year cycle," he said. "It doesn't take much fire to encourage saplings."
The 162-acre project was adjacent to earlier prescribed burns and mechanical treatments that the Forest Service and partners have undertaken. Genung said records indicate there have been four prescribed burns on the lower slopes of Basalt Mountain over the past 30 years. The most recent was last spring. The vegetation grows back so quickly that regular fires must be set to have a long-term effect. On a tour, Genung pointed out how regular burns and treatments have created a patchwork of clearings.
"There's almost a wave of age-class diversity, which is nice," he said.
Most of the terrain targeted on Basalt Mountain is between 7,500 and 9,000 feet. The vegetation transitions to dark timber above that elevation — subalpine fire, lodgepole and spruce trees. They aren't as susceptible to fire — natural or by prescribed burns — as are the mix of vegetation at lower elevations, according to Genung. Long-term drought, he said, could change that.
Reducing fuels is a secondary benefit of the prescribed burns. Genung showed a map that models the flame lengths that would occur in a large fire on Basalt Mountain. The fire wouldn't be as intense where the work has been performed. That's in contrast to the private lands adjacent to the forest boundary, where overgrown brush would burn intensely, the modeling map shows.
Genung said Forest Service officials have been disappointed in the lack of interest Roaring Fork Valley residents have shown in the forest-health projects. Some environmental groups offered public comments during the planning of the projects, and Wilderness Workshop Executive Director Sloan Shoemaker observed Wednesday's burn, but there was little interest from the public at large.
White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams previously said that forest health in the Roaring Fork Valley should be the top public concern regarding public lands. He lamented that more attention isn't paid to battling over adding or preventing the addition of wilderness.
Several prescribed burns and mechanical treatments are in the planning stage in the Roaring Fork Valley. Timing will depend on funding. About 1,800 acres is targeted for projects on Basalt Mountain. Work also will be performed on Smuggler Mountain and in the Hunter Creek Valley. That project is bound to garner more attention because it is Aspen's favorite playground.
Another project is on the hillside behind Filoha Meadows in the Crystal River Valley. Genung said workers have been hand-cutting brush to clear lines of sight for bighorn sheep. It's believed the sheep have been reluctant to come down to the Crystal River because of all the cover. They fear mountain lions and other predators that lurk there, Genung said.
There is a good chance work will continue in that area next spring as well as in Avalanche Creek, Genung said.