Wildfire mitigation efforts continue in Snowmass Village
Heavier equipment used on four acres off Faraway Road
Though some recent rain has given the local landscape a bit of temporary relief, it isn’t time to kick back and relax on fire safety, according to John Mele, the fire marshal for the Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Authority.
“You can’t let your guard down,” Mele said in a phone call Tuesday. “But at the same time, the trend over the years is showing that we are in a drought still, or that we’re just — this is just a relief period. … The forest still needs to go through the ecology of being cleaned up.”
The cleaning-up process is one that Roaring Fork Fire and other community partners are continuing this summer with a project on about 4 acres of land between Faraway Road and View Ridge Lane, where crews were working for the past couple of weeks, according to an email from Mele.
Wildfire mitigation projects of varying scopes using both people and machines have been happening in the town for years and have covered about 100 acres of land in the past decade.
But unlike some other recent projects that mainly involved crews like the State Wildland Inmate Fire Team (SWIFT) hand-carrying materials out of the mitigation site to get chipped up or otherwise managed, this effort involves “heavy equipment” like bulldozers and masticators.
Mele said the machinery mitigation effort is still selective to clear out the dead vegetation while retaining most of the plant life.
“It’s not a clear cut, and I don’t want people to think that,” Mele said. “Even though we’re using the bigger equipment, this equipment is very useful in being selective, and not just mowing down healthy forest or fauna.”
The goal is to “mimic Mother Nature” without waiting for a wildfire to do the job, so if a fire does spark in that area, “it won’t be so severe,” Mele said.
Crews did clear out an access road in the area, but from Faraway Road below or View Ridge Lane above the mitigation area, “you wouldn’t even see what we’re in there doing — you won’t see this as a tear or scar,” Mele said.
Roaring Fork Fire, the Snowmass Homeowners Association and the town of Snowmass Village all partner on vegetation management in the village, and the fire authority is also working with The Pines subdivision for work in that neck of the woods.
Mele said he also sees many curious homeowners interested in learning about the efforts, which could foster more mitigation efforts on homeowners’ own properties.
“We’re kind of fortunate where I think our community recognizes the value of this, and they also know that we’re delicate in how we’re doing it,” Mele said.
According to Mele, the wildfire mitigation effort can have other ecological benefits too by improving wildlife access for animals like deer or bears.
“We’re very conscious of the botany and the ecology in the area,” Mele said. “We only really (go) after these — the dead and dying type trees and the stuff that’s already on the forest floor. … These masticators and machines have the ability to reach out, grab a specific tree, not let it go and actually masticate it and chew it up without bulldozing the whole area.”
Crews were out in the mitigation area for about the past two weeks, and they’ll “probably” return “in another month or two,” Mele said. He’s scheduling mitigation where he can, with the knowledge that a rising demand for mitigation elsewhere is affecting crew availability even with longstanding relationships in place.
“Something that’s getting more and more complicated, is actually getting the crews here, getting contractors here to work,” Mele said. “There’s so much work out there, so many communities are asking for mitigation, that now it’s getting hard to schedule them in.”
That scheduling challenge is also impacting the availability of the SWIFT crews, which are teams of people incarcerated in Colorado prisons who help fight fires and conduct mitigation efforts, too. Some of them are scheduled in Basalt now doing other mitigation work, according to Mele.
“We actually considered bringing in both (machinery crews and SWIFT crews) to work in harmony” at the Faraway site, Mele said. “It would work out very well — it’s just that I am having a difficult time right now scheduling the State Wildland Inmate (Fire) Team. They’re in such demand. … All the wildfires and the history that we’re seeing now, how devastating they are, has really heightened the value of these crews.”
As of Tuesday morning, there were not currently any fire restrictions in Pitkin County, which includes Snowmass Village. For up-to-date information on restriction status and wildfire preparedness, visit pitkinwildfire.com.
With Fourth of July celebrations around the corner, Mele noted in an email that “most all fireworks that explode or leave the ground are illegal in the state of Colorado.” Sparklers, ground “fountains” and the like are legal in the state, but be sure to stay up to date on current fire restrictions and be mindful of where sparks fly. Buffed-out or cement areas aren’t as flammable as a place with a lot of vegetation.
“We don’t encourage it,” Mele said. “We usually say leave the fireworks to the professionals — even those permitted ones can cause burns and injuries, and we see that every year.”
Mele also emphasized that visitors and residents should sign up for the PitkinAlert notification system, which sends out texts, emails, phone calls and the Everbridge app in the event of a fire or other emergency or community news. You can log in or sign up at bit.ly/3QWh9cq.