Ron Baar: Guest opinion
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Recently I raised issues of concern regarding a section of a proposed wilderness area that impinged very closely to the Aspen city limits. My concerns are of safety for the residents nearby as well as the firefighters who would be called to attempt suppression of the wildfires that could impinge upon the residential community that becomes a close neighbor of the proposed wilderness area.
In recent years nationally, we have seen an increase in building into the area known as the wildland/urban interface. This is where the homes move into the wildfire plain. Due to the steady increase of residential structures into this area, we have started to see a dramatic increase in home losses of the residences that became at risk. As awareness becomes heightened of this problem, building codes are changed and restrictions are enacted for those wishing to build in the wildland/urban interface; consideration is given to fuels, topography and aspect, if building is to be allowed at all.
Rarely, if ever, have I seen dedicated wilderness brought to a community’s edge.
My observations and comments at a recent county commissioner meeting were based upon my knowledge that has accumulated from my involvement in wildfire suppression since 1969.
Needless to say, I have seen quite a bit of situations in the wildfire arena since that time.
The concerns I raise are based on those observations over time.
The following points I am raising are what you all should be considering:
Point 1: The closer you bring wilderness to your community’s town boundaries, the closer you bring the threat of wildfire to the community.
Point 2: Wilderness limits mechanical mitigation. We do not know what federal money may be available 10, 20 or even more years from now, but we do know that once wilderness is designated, all the money in the world will not allow for mechanical wildfire mitigation in the wilderness.
Point 3: Fighting a wilderness fire has its limits on mechanical suppression methods allowed, such as no bulldozers. For those of you not aware, a D7 Cat builds some pretty good line to fire off of. This method has had success in stopping a moving wildfire. It can create an anchor point to light a backfire from or create a larger defensible space for burnout if necessary.
Point 4: The proposed addition of wilderness to the Hunter Creek/Smuggler Mountain area has abundance in the lower area of 10-hour and 100-hour fuels. In the higher area are the 1,000-hour fuels. Who has the crystal ball to know that this will remain moist forever? Each of these fuels has their own unique characteristic as to what they do when the woods are on fire. The combination can and has quite often created numerous equally dangerous and devastating fire scenarios.
Point 5: A wildfire column at 40,000 feet, which is not uncommon in a raging wildfire, especially with the above mentioned fuel types, if it collapses, can throw embers and fire brands up to a mile or more.
Point 6: A wildfire has been known to move more than 6 miles in a day in the types of fuels we have. Given the southwest aspect of most of the proposed Hunter Creek/Smuggler wilderness area, it is not farfetched that should the fuel conditions be right, this scenario is not just a pipe dream, and yes, I know it hasn’t happened here … yet.
Point 7: In 2002 at the Big Fish Fire in the Trappeur Lakes area of the White River National Forest, a wilderness fire was allowed to burn. In some of the area, an existent fence was the dividing line of good fire (that which was on the wilderness side) and bad fire (that being if the fire was to cross the fence into the non-wilderness area). The intent was that the fire was meant to be allowed to burn naturally and be kept on the good fire side.
One day the good fire crossed the fence and the bad fire burned up the Trappeur Lake Lodge. Literally incinerated it; this, despite the available suppression forces that were monitoring the fire. Sometime wildfire does what it wants, despite our efforts and what we want and expect it to do.
Point 8: In 1910 a wildfire burned close to 3 million acres in a matter of days. (The one-century anniversary of this was just last August). Scores of people died and communities were lost. I believe, given the limited population of the area of Idaho and Montana that was involved in this conflagration at the time, you could easily have called a large majority of that area wilderness.
Beyond this, I would not be surprised, though it is pure speculation on my part, that insurance companies may reconsider whether or not they can continue to insure against fire some properties in the McSkimming, Eastwood and Mountain Valley areas that would become close to the wilderness.
We know that Chub Insurance, for example, now sends its own private wildfire engines to residences insured by them whenever a wildfire impinges to within 3 miles of these structures (they prep the buildings and leave when the fire comes) and finally, who do you suppose will be standing by, defending those properties when the wildfire comes ripping around the corner?
So, in conclusion, you have my reasons for believing that the proposal to bring wilderness to the lower Hunter Creek, and entire Smuggler Mountain, area may create a danger that is quite unacceptable to those of us who have a considerable amount of experience dealing with wildfire and have witnessed when wildfire strikes home.
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