Wildfire mitigation efforts gain urgency in Aspen, Pitkin County

U.S. Forest Service is ready to roll with 5 projects, Pitkin County helps with funding

A federal firefighter surveys the damage on Basalt Mountain from the Lake Christine Fire in summer 2018.
Scott Condon/Aspen Times archive

The Marshall Fire that destroyed more than 1,000 structures in Boulder County Dec. 30 has increased the urgency of completing wildfire mitigation projects in the Aspen area and Pitkin County.

The U.S. Forest Service is working with the governments of Aspen and Pitkin County as well as fire districts and homeowners associations to identify places that are the highest priorities for fuels reduction. The private lands on Red Mountain and public lands surrounding the high-end neighborhood are one of the highest priorities.

“I look at Red Mountain and I’m very concerned about it,” Aspen Councilwoman Rachel Richards said Tuesday at a meeting between Forest Service and local government officials. She noted there is one road providing access out for homeowners in case of evacuation and access in for firefighters.

Richards said the Marshall Fire that swept through parts of Louisville and Superior show the importance of fire mitigation on private lands as well as national forests.

“We all are painfully aware of what went on down on Boulder County,” Richards said. “There was no forestland involved at all.”

A working group loosely referred to as the Roaring Fork Fuels Collaborative is looking at numerous wildland fire mitigation projects, including one called Sunnyside, which would treat lands adjacent to Red Mountain subdivision. Between 1,000 and 1,500 acres would be targeted, according to Kevin Warner, Aspen-Sopris District Ranger. It would require mechanical treatment of tree and vegetation removal and prescribed burns in areas away from homes. The earliest that project could advance is probably spring 2024, Warner said.

“Unequivocally government alone cannot fix the problem.” — Valerie MacDonald, Pitkin County emergency manager

Cooperation from the homeowners would be essential so that land within the subdivision would be treated as well. Aspen Fire Chief Rick Balentine said his department is working on demonstration projects to show homeowners that easing wildfire risk doesn’t mean ruining their property.

“They’re afraid we’re going to come in and clear-cut their yards, clear-cut their views,” Balentine said.

Members of a U.S. Forest Service team assess burn severity on Basalt Mountain’s Mill Creek Trail after the Lake Christine Fire in summer 2018.
Scott Condon/Aspen Times archive

The Forest Service led a project in 2016 to treat lands near Red Mountain in the Hunter Creek Valley. Additional work on up to 1,500 acres in Hunter Creek could be undertaken as soon as this spring, according to Gary Tennenbaum, director of the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program. He credited the Forest Service for leading the successful 2016 project and not causing alarm in Aspen. He also credited the agency for its willingness to propose working close to Red Mountain.

“Putting fire next to the city of Aspen is a daunting proposition sometimes,” Tennenbaum said.

Warner said five wildland fire mitigation projects throughout the region are being planned. The Forest Service and its partners probably don’t have the resources to pursue them all this year, but priorities will be dictated by factors such as moisture levels this spring and the ability to get a permit from the state over air quality.

The contending projects include 2,000 acres in Collins Creek east of the settlement of Woody Creek, 2,000 acres in Braderich Creek west of Redstone, the 1,500 acres in Hunter Creek in Aspen’s backyard, a project in Cattle Creek north of Basalt Mountain in Eagle County and a project in the Seven Castles area in Fryingpan Valley.

“These are the best bang for the buck,” Warner said.

Pitkin County has budgeted $300,000 over three years to assist the Forest Service. The highest priority for the county is “where the forest meets homes,” said county emergency manager Valerie MacDonald. The county has collaborated in recent years on several small projects that reduced fuels on federal lands in the Crystal River Valley that are adjacent to private properties, such as Swiss Village, she said.

A project north of Redstone treated 100 acres. “It gives the historic town of Redstone a fighting chance to evacuate safety,” MacDonald said.

Like other speakers at the meeting, she said getting cooperation from private landowners is the key to building resiliency. Pitkin County is 83% public lands, but much of its private property is in what’s known as the wildland-urban interface.

“Unequivocally government alone cannot fix the problem,” MacDonald said.

The local planning comes as the U.S. Forest Service released a major new initiative called “Confronting the Wildfire Crisis.” It will target “firesheds” in the Western U.S. — areas 250,000 acres and larger with a high likelihood that an ignition could expose homes, communities and infrastructure to wildfire.

The initiative will target 20 million acres on national forestlands as well as up to 30 million acres on other federal, state and private lands over the next 10 years. It will also come up with a maintenance plan beyond the next decade.

President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill earmarked $3 billion for the effort beyond regular funding for wildfire mitigation. The strategy is drawing criticism from some environmental groups.

“The U.S. Forest Service simply cannot log its way out of the climate crisis or effectively protect homes and communities from wildfires by dramatically increasing industrial logging of National Forest System lands,” Adam Rissien of WildEarth Guardians said in a statement Tuesday. The organization said research shows wildfire mitigation must focus 100 to 200 feet from homes.