Project eases wildfire risk in Basalt neighborhood |

Project eases wildfire risk in Basalt neighborhood

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

BASALT – A rural neighborhood in the sun-drenched lower slopes of Basalt Mountain has the potential to be a poster child for wildfire mitigation in the Roaring Fork Valley, according to state and local officials.

Hand crews this week cleared out thick gambol oak brush on steep slopes and thinned the pinon and juniper trees along Cedar Drive. They are working on approximately 15 acres of private land belonging to two homeowners, as well as some state land held by the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

Eric Lovgren, a wildfire mitigation official with the Eagle County Community Development Department, is leading a crew that is removing brush within 75 to 100 feet of Cedar Drive.

“The long and short of it is, we’re taking a lot of BTUs out of the system,” Lovgren said, referring to a unit of measurement of heat created by burning any material. And they’re doing it without a “clear cut.” Other landowners are taking note, Lovgren said, and expressed a willingness to thin the fuels on their property.

That is exactly the reaction sought by Eagle County, the Basalt fire department and the Colorado State Forest Service, which issued the grant for the wildfire mitigation.

Basalt Deputy Fire Chief Jerry Peetz said he hopes the Cedar Drive work will inspire people in other densely wooded subdivisions in the district to take note and take action to reduce fuels before the next dry summer increases chances for a wildfire. The fire district includes parts of Missouri Heights, Emma, East and West Sopris Creek Road and various neighborhoods around Basalt Mountain and the Fryingpan Valley.

The threat of wildfires eased this year with summer rains, but the area has avoided catastrophe on numerous occasions in the last decade. A fire two summers ago brought special attention to Cedar Drive, a road that provides access to an eclectic mix of 27 funky and modern homes in a south-southwest-facing enclave on Basalt Mountain.

Two years ago, a wildfire started when a wheel fell off a camper trailer heading down Fryingpan Road, just outside of Basalt. Sparks flew as the axle dragged along the road. Grass ignited on the shoulder, and flames quickly raced up the steep hillside toward the homes on Cedar Drive, several hundred yards above.

Firefighters used the road to stop the advance of the fire, but they were concerned about a potential disaster and ordered the neighborhood evacuated. The narrow, curvy dirt road couldn’t handle the traffic.

“We had a fire truck go up there and block everybody from coming down,” Peetz said.

Improvements to the road are being explored through different avenues, but officials realized they could take action sooner to reduce the fire risk along Cedar Drive. Property owner Janet Lightfoot said the fire got her interested in creating defensible space around her house. She expanded the scope of the work after talking to Peetz about thinning fuels on her 10-acre property.

The Basalt fire department applied to the state forest service for a grant to thin fuels on Lightfoot’s property and on neighboring land. The money was awarded this year, so Lovgren was hired to perform the work. He is being assisted by two firefighters from the Vail Fire Department. They have piled down timber across Lightfoot’s land. The slash piles will be burned after enough snow accumulates to make it safe.

Lightfoot likes the result of the work. “Nobody likes cutting down trees, but this is more like creating a park,” she said.

Peetz said a highly flammable understory of brush, dominated by oak, is getting cleared out. Lower limbs of towering pinon and juniper trees are also getting cut to eliminate ladder fuels. Lovgren and his crew are selectively thinning trees so fires cannot spread so readily in the canopy.

Lightfoot believes an expanded effort would greatly benefit the Cedar Drive homeowners.

“If a fire comes up the Fryingpan, we can save my house and everybody else’s,” she said.

Lovgren said Eagle County has stopped issuing building permits for additions or new construction along Cedar Drive, outside the Basalt town limit, because of concerns over the road and wildfire potential. A grant is being sought from the Colorado Department of Transportation to create occasional wide spots, so homeowners and fire equipment can pass one another safely.

The thinning along the road will create a more viable firebreak and lessen the intensity of a fire, Lovgren said. Peeling back the vegetation also makes the road more valuable as an escape route for residents and an ingress route for firefighters.

Jacob McCarthy, a forester with the Colorado State Forest Service, said thinning large swaths of property like the lower slopes of Basalt Mountain isn’t feasible. The terrain is steep and rugged so hand crews must be used. The limited availability of funds requires strategic mitigation – along roads and homes, he said.

“We’ll definitely use Cedar Drive as somewhat of a poster child” of what can be accomplished, McCarthy said.

The state forest service dispersed federal money from the Emergency Supplemental Funds Program for wildfire mitigation this summer. It’s unknown yet if additional funding will be available in 2011. If they are, McCarthy said there are numerous other areas that would qualify in the Roaring Fork Valley portion of Eagle County. Low elevations equate to longer fire seasons and greater potential risk for rural subdivisions where the trees are generally old and, in some cases, unhealthy.

The challenge is getting homeowners to buy into the projects. “There is definitely a reluctance to cut trees down,” McCarthy said. That’s where the strategic thinning along Cedar Drive can help the cause.

“Once the landowners see what we’re doing, they say it’s not that bad,” he said.

Peetz said landowners interested in wildfire mitigation projects in the Basalt and Rural Fire Protection District can call the fire department at 704-0675 to begin the process.