| AspenTimes.com

Forest Service aims to gain support for prescribed burns in Roaring Fork Valley

With mega-fires starting to affect Colorado’s drought-stricken forests and home development continuing unabated on private lands next to the forests, federal officials are trying to earn public support for preventative measures.

The White River National Forest undertook four prescribed burns last spring that covered about 3,800 acres. U.S. Forest Service officials said Friday the work was beneficial but only a sliver of what is needed. The White River National Forest covers 2.3 million acres from Rifle to Summit County and Independence Pass to the Flat Tops north of Glenwood Springs.

“Part of the reason we have to do this, if you look back over the last 75 years, is Smokey the Bear has been pretty successful,” Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Kevin Warner said Friday. “We as a society have really suppressed a lot more fires. Now we’re seeing some of the challenges that come with that.”

Colorado had its three largest wildfires ever in 2020 and that didn’t include the Grizzly Creek Fire, which continues to bring consequences to Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon.

White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said the evidence is clear that public land management agencies need to be more aggressive about prescribed fire and beneficial management of natural fires, when appropriate.

“We’ve got to get people on board because we’re going to have fire,” Fitzwilliams said. “We’ve got to get going. I think there’s a little bit of urgency we’re all feeling. All you have to do is watch California and what we had in Colorado last year.”

While the Roaring Fork Valley has been spared from wildfire so far this year, patchy smoke through a good chunk of the summer is a reminder of how the West is burning. Climate change has intensified droughts that are weakening trees and making them more susceptible to disease and bugs. Will the growing threat of wildfires build public support for preventative action such as prescribed burns or spook people to the point they demand immediate extinguishing of any fire?

“We’ve got to do a better job of communicating and educating people about what the realities are,” Fitzwilliams said. “I wish we could go back in time and see how many fewer trees there were 100, 150 years ago, before we started putting out fires. We have more trees than ever was natural, yet we fall in love with every one of them, and we end up paying a price. We’ve got to figure that out.”

One of last year’s prescribed burns in the Roaring Fork Valley occurred in Collins Creek, rugged territory 9 miles north of Aspen. The drainage is north and upstream from the late George Stranahan’s Flying Dog Ranch on Woody Creek Road.

Dan Nielsen, a fuels specialist for the forest, was the firing boss for that project May 7. He directed the release of about 7,000 incendiary devices about the size of Ping-Pong balls from a helicopter. The devices were dropped about every 100 feet and started multiple small fires. Snow on the high ridges kept the fire contained.

Nielsen led a hike to the site Friday to show how the area looks four months later. The fire charred thickets of oak brush and serviceberry bushes dominate the dry, south-facing landscape between 7,500 and 9,000 feet in elevation in the Collins Creek drainage. Out of the 1,200-acre burn area, 800 to 900 acres actually were affected by fire, Nielsen said. Small aspen trees have already proliferated in the burn area along with grasses and new shoots of oak and serviceberry.

“This is the perfect result,” Nielsen said. “This is what we’re looking for.”

The duel purpose of the project was to improve wildlife habitat and create firebreaks. The area is critical winter range for deer and elk. Enhanced wildlife habitat and fuels reduction go hand-in-hand, Nielsen said.

“When you sit here all summer and deal with smoke from 1,000 miles away, it should make us all realize we can’t avoid this.” — Scott Fitzwilliams, White River National Forest supervisor

It’s hard to see the effects of the fire until in the thick of the burn area. Then, charred trees pop into view and charred wood covers parts of the ground.

“The key is that was a low-intensity burn,” Nielsen said. “We’re not burning the nutrients out of the soil.”

The result is a mosaic on the landscape — areas where old brush burned and new vegetation is taking root, and patches where the old growth remained.

“It breaks up the continuity in case a wildfire comes in here,” Nielsen said. The area will likely be ripe for another burn in 10 or so years, he said.

Phil Nyland, wildlife biologist with the White River, said the Collins Creek project paid instant dividends for wildlife.

“In the next few growing seasons, even more browse will be available as shrubs continue to grow taller than the height of the snow,” he said via email. “Grass and flowering plants, which big game forage on in summer, are dormant or buried under the snow, so the woody stems of shrubs and trees are an important primary food source for elk and mule deer.”

Nyland said projects undertaken by the Forest Service, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and other partners would improve habitat for elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep and other native wildlife across 45,000 acres over a 10-year period.

Warner said there are five prescribed fire projects planned over the next two to three years along with another five mechanical treatments, where machines are used to thin trees and other vegetation in areas where prescribed fire isn’t an option. The planned projects will probably cover 6,000 to 8,000 acres, Warner said. It is a start, but the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District sprawls across more than 700,000 acres.

Fitzwilliams, who has held his post for nearly 12 years, said the public acceptance of prescribed burns and mechanical treatment has slowly increased during his tenure. He said treatments should occur on a broad landscape scale, not just on a few isolated projects.

“I think we’ve made some headway,” Fitzwilliams said. “When you sit here all summer and deal with smoke from 1,000 miles away, it should make us all realize we can’t avoid this. Let’s figure out how to manage it, even then there’s no guarantees.”

scondon@aspentimes.com

Berm built on advice of Grizzly Creek burn scar team likely prevented major damage to Hanging Lake Tunnels

Damage left behind from a mud and debris slide that flooded Cinnamon Creek above the Hanging Lake Tunnels on Thursday, July 22.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

A major rock and debris flow down the Devil’s Hole drainage in Glenwood Canyon last week was largely unexpected in terms of its impact on Interstate 70, state transportation officials said Wednesday.

The massive debris flow caused by a rainstorm the evening of July 22 dumped piles of large rocks and trees into the Colorado River, damming the river and forcing it out of its channel up against the highway’s eastbound deck structure.

Concerns about the water and debris compromising the highway structure ultimately closed I-70 for the better part of two days as a result. Westbound lanes weren’t reopened until early Saturday morning, and the eastbound lanes remained closed until later that day.

“The reason we didn’t open up the highway on Friday is because we didn’t know what the river was doing underneath the road itself,” Colorado Department of Transportation Region 3 Director Mike Goolsby said Wednesday during a media tour of the impacted area.

A major debris slide partially blocks a section of the Colorado River near MM124 in Glenwood Canyon after a flash flood swept rocks and debris down the Devil’s Hole drainage on Thursday, July 22.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

“Until we were able to get our folks out there to evaluate it, we weren’t completely comfortable opening up the road,” he said.

Goolsby called the threat to the highway in that particular location “totally unexpected.”

“We had been worried about the road surface and getting the traffic through, so this was something we were not completely prepared for planning-wise, in terms of the amount of debris that came down,” Goolsby said.

What was expected given rain event and debris flow modeling that was done after last summer’s Grizzly Creek Fire played out that same night just a few miles to the east in the Cinnamon Creek drainage above CDOT’s Hanging Lake Tunnel Command Center.

Largely out of sight from passing motorists, the command center was built in the natural drainage when I-70 was completed through Glenwood Canyon in the early 1990s. The building structure essentially connects two sections of eastbound and westbound tunnel bores to make one long tunnel.

It also serves as the central command system for the state highway system on the Western Slope of Colorado, with a staff of 35 people, a full fire response unit and camera eyes on virtually every section of I-70 in the canyon.

Last summer, during the height of the wildfire that started Aug. 10, 2020, and closed I-70 through Glenwood Canyon for nearly two weeks, a special Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team inspected the area and predicted exactly what happened July 22.

The recommendation at the time was to build a large earthen berm to the west of the creek drainage to protect the tunnel command center should a major debris flow occur.

During last week’s storm, upward of a 100,000 cubic yards of material did in fact come rushing down Cinnamon Creek directly toward the tunnel structure, but was diverted by the berm and out of harm’s way.

“This berm basically stopped this complex from filling up with mud and debris,” said John Lorme, CDOT director of maintenance and operations.

“Had it not been here, we’d be trying to figure out how we’re going to clear all these tunnels out and rebuild this whole complex.”

Lorme called it a perfect example of an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure.

Damage was limited to a clogged and mildly damaged concrete culvert that normally channels the creek around the command center.

“It literally probably saved the state hundreds of millions of dollars,” Lorme said of the berm — not to mention what likely would have been an indefinite closure of I-70 through the canyon.

The berm was paid for out of just a small portion of the millions of dollars in emergency funds that were released to deal with the Grizzly Creek Fire impacts. Rather than bidding out what would have been about a $50,000 project, CDOT handled the work in house, saving even more dollars.

In any event, Hanging Lake Tunnels Operational Manager Trevor Allen said the command center had an evacuation plan in place and preparations to set up a temporary operations center in Glenwood Springs, if need be.

Back downstream at the Devil’s Hole debris flow site, heavy earthmoving equipment was brought in by train Wednesday to begin moving the tons of rock and other debris that’s now clogging the Colorado River.

CDOT crews begin off loading equipment to begin removing some of the rocks from the debris slide in the Colorado River that came down the Devil's Hole drainage near MM124 in Glenwood Canyon on Thursday, July 22.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

The goal is to cut a pilot channel from the south side of the river and remove as much debris as possible to push the river back into its normal channel and away from the highway, where it now covers most of the recreation path that runs along the interstate.

The risk if the debris is not removed is that the flow of the river could undercut the highway deck structure and cause more severe damage.

“Right now we’re confident that it’s safe,” Goolsby said. “We just want to get the water away from the roadway so we can go in and make any repairs that we need to.”

As far as the highway itself goes, that’s not expected to be too extensive. The recreation path could be a different story, as several sections are believed to have been damaged by the recent mudslides, he said.

It’s likely to remain closed for the foreseeable future until that damage can be assessed and repairs made, Goolsby said. Similar extensive repairs have had to be made in high runoff years when the path has been damaged.

The focus now, and likely into the fall until the seasonal monsoonal weather subsides, is to keep the traveling public and recreational users safe, Goolsby said.

Any time there is a flash flood watch for the area including Glenwood Canyon, rest areas along the 16-mile stretch are closed and CDOT crews are put on alert to be prepared in the event of a flood.

If the watch is elevated to a flash flood warning, meaning heavy rains and flooding in areas are imminent, I-70 through the canyon is closed to traffic.

So far, about 80% of the time that has happened in recent weeks there has been a mud and debris flow at some location in the canyon, Goolsby said.

That, in turn, leads to a more lengthy closure, oftentimes overnight and into the next day, while crews remove the material from the road surface and make sure all is safe for traffic to flow again.

That process involves some 40 to 50 CDOT employees, many of whom are brought in from other districts in the state to help with the cleanup, he said.

Also joining the tour Wednesday was CDOT Executive Director Shoshana Lew. She also spoke to the forward-thinking mitigation that was done to protect the tunnel command center.

“It’s a little eerie being in this spot, after we were here last summer when this berm was being built,” she said. “What you are seeing now is the long tale of what we all sort of knew was coming.”

Glenwood Canyon remains one of the most challenging stretches of highway in the state system, she said, but last year’s fires and recent storms have had major impacts all across the state, including the deadly flash flood in Poudre Canyon recently below the Cameron Peak Fire burn scar.

Fortunately, no lives have been lost in Glenwood Canyon, and the CDOT response plan whenever there’s a threat of flooding is meant to keep it that way, Lew said.

“Our first priority is to keep people safe and keep them out of harm’s way,” she said. “We beg for people’s patience and caution in this.”

The dangers associated with Glenwood Canyon in particular are unique and require a lot of planning and financial investment, she added.

“As beautiful a gem of the interstate as it is to drive, it’s just extraordinarily complicated with risks,” Lew said. “We manage them, but they’re not going to go away.”

Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or jstroud@postindependent.com.

Monsoon rain prompts end to fire restrictions (for now) in Aspen area

Wildflowers pop open from a morning of continual rain in the Hunter Creek Valley in Aspen on Wednesday, July 14, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

With solid recent rainfall, all fire restrictions in Pitkin County will end Friday morning, officials said Tuesday.

Stage 1 fire restrictions also will end in the White River National Forest and some surrounding counties, said Aspen Fire Chief Rick Balentine and Pitkin County Emergency Manager Valerie MacDonald.

“The data doesn’t support us being in fire restrictions,” MacDonald said, “mainly because of the moisture surge we’ve had lately.”

Still, with fire seasons extending into October in recent years, officials warned the public to remain on guard about wildfire danger.

“Although we are coming out of fire restrictions, I’m asking all Pitkin County residents and visitors to remember that fire season is far from over,” Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said in a Tuesday news release. “Everyone should remain vigilant, adhere to fire safety rules and report all smoke and fire to 911 immediately.”

Fire restrictions will end at 12:01 a.m. Friday.

Monsoonal moisture will probably continue for at least the next week, with thunderstorms gradually becoming more likely as the week progresses, said Michael Charnick, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. Tuesday represented a bit of a lull in thunderstorm activity, but monsoon precipitation and humidity remain in the forecast, he said.

“For Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, the afternoons and evenings look particularly wet,” Charnick said. “On Saturday and Sunday, there also should be pretty damp days in the afternoon and evening with monsoon storms.”

Indeed, a National Weather Service meteorologist who participated in a weekly call about fire restrictions said this summer’s monsoonal flow has been the best in five years, MacDonald said. However, the forecaster also pointed out the likelihood of hotter temperatures and drier conditions in the next couple months, she said.

“It’s only July,” MacDonald said. “Fire season is not over. We will continue to evaluate conditions weekly and if we get hot and dry again, we will go back to fire restrictions.”

Forecast maps from the Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center indicate monsoon moisture should stick around for another two to three weeks. But after that, the predictions for about a month out indicate a drying trend where the probability of moisture drops to below average or average.

The CPC also maintains a La Nina Watch for the 2021-22 winter that could include lower than normal precipitation.

“The National Weather Service forecast calls for a drying trend in mid-August,” DiSalvo said in Tuesday’s news release. “We will continue to monitor the (level of moisture in area vegetation) and weather data weekly and make adjustments as warranted.”

Balentine said the Aspen Fire Department supported DiSalvo’s dropping fire restrictions for the time being.

“All indices line up that we should be coming out of fire restrictions,” he said. “But we’re not out of the woods yet.”

‘The only tool we have:’ CDOT turns to response strategies following multiple mudslides on I-70

Mudslides and debris flows over Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon are expected to continue for years to come with little to no possible mitigation solutions.
CDOT/Special to the Vail Daily

Over the past few weeks, mudslides and flash flood warnings have prompted continual closures of Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon. A result of the Grizzly Creek Fire burn scar, the steep slopes surrounding the interstate in the canyon have become increasingly susceptible to these large debris flows. And really, there’s not much anyone can do.

“We’ve all known that this risk of mudslides was here,” said David Boyd, public affairs officer for the White River National Forest.

Immediately after the Grizzly Creek Fire, the Forest Service sent out a Burn Area Emergency Response team, also known as a BAER team, to assess damages and risk in the area as well as provide possible mitigation solutions.

What the team — which is comprised of specialists including hydrologists, botanists, ecologists, soil scientists and engineers — found was that many of the drainages in Glenwood Canyon burned severely. Couple that with the steepness of the slopes in the canyon, and it equals a higher risk of debris flow.

“The problem with the high-severity burn is that it cooks the soil,” Boyd said. “Soil normally is full of all kinds of living organisms, microorganisms, roots, seeds, those sorts of things, and if the fire burns really severely, it just kills all that.”

This severe burn also, according to Boyd, makes the soil more hydrophobic so the water isn’t absorbed into the soil — “it just comes right off.”

“The other challenge with that is reseeding isn’t going to take very well in those highly, severely burned areas,” Boyd said. “Most of Grizzly Creek, if you go up in the burned area, is recovering naturally; grasses and forbs in the area where it was brush, those are all coming back.”

In some areas of the Grizzly Creek Fire burn scar where the burn was not as severe, grass and vegetation has started to regenerate naturally.
White River National Forest/Special to the Daily

Without this regeneration, these mudslides will continue to occur with little to no vegetation to hold back the debris. This is particularly true as summer precipitation — which often dumps a lot of rain in a small area over a short period of time — continues to cause these debris flows.

“For the next few years, mudslides will be a problem,” Boyd said. “Over time, it gets better as the fire recovers more. Eventually, these severely burned areas will start coming back.”

So, what the Forest Service can, and will continue to do, according to Boyd, is monitor the area and continue to look for opportunities to mitigate this risk.

Safety closures first

This map shows the burn severity across the Grizzly Creek Fire — 12% was marked as high severity burn, 43% as moderate, 33% was low and within the fire’s perimeter and 12% remained unburned.
White River National Forest/Special to the Daily

Instead, a lot of the mitigation efforts have been focused on these closures, which protect the safety of motorists on I-70.

“We’re talking about nature and nature’s process, that’s pretty tough to mitigate,” said Tracy Trulove, a Colorado Department of Transportation spokesperson. “CDOT is always going to put safety at the top of the list for what we’re doing in the canyon.”

Earlier this year, CDOT completed several projects related to rock and debris flow in the canyon. Spending around $1.7 million in federal funding for emergency repairs, the department constructed a number of barriers intended to mitigate smaller sloughs of rock and debris and prevent scattering of smaller rocks into the roadway areas. This also included improvements and debris removal efforts along existing fences and barriers.

Even with these fences and precautions in place, it’s incredibly challenging to predict where the debris flows will occur.

In fact, the U.S. Geological Survey created a landslide hazard map that identified areas where there was a high likelihood for these larger debris flows. So far, this map had identified the three areas where debris flows have ran onto the highway as areas with a 40% to 100% chance of doing so. However, even with these models, it’s impossible to predict these occurrences.

“There’s just so many areas in that canyon that have the potential for debris flow,” Trulove said.

Not only are the flows difficult to predict, but the state of the slopes have created debris flows that would be hard for the fences to catch.

“It’s a lot of mud and water and a very soupy mix that’s coming down,” Trulove said. “So even with those barriers in place, you’re still going to get a decent amount of material that comes through.”

So far, the mudslides that have made their way onto the interstate have had minimal impacts to the road. According to Trulove, there has only been minimal damage to things like drains and some damage to the guardrail, which was already in “desperate need.” Most of the costs have been associated with cleanup operations and resources.

According to Victoria Graham, a spokesperson from Gov. Jared Polis’ office, the governor requested funds for improving I-70 in Glenwood Canyon in September 2020.

“The state has requested up to $10 million in federal funding and been approved for approximately $2.5 million in emergency repair funding, which is 100% reimbursable, and $2.8 million in permanent repairs, which is 80% reimbursable,” Graham wrote. “Additional funding to protect local community water supplies and infrastructure was passed during this last legislative session working with those communities, the state legislature and Department of Natural Resources.”

Matthew Inzeo, CDOT’s communication director, wrote in an email that the emergency repairs funding reimbursed “funds that were spent in the immediate response to the Grizzly Creek Fire last year,” which includes the improvements mentioned above.

According to Trulove, CDOT isn’t aware of any new money earmarked for continued mitigation.

In terms of the long-term revegetation work, that will fall under federal funding for the Forest Service. “In a recent call with President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and key cabinet officials, Gov. Polis underscored the post-fire watershed and mudslide impacts,” Graham wrote.

Just this week, the Colorado Transportation Commission approved $238 million via Senate Bill 260 to address “critical statewide multimodal needs,” according to the press release. However, no improvements to I-70 in the canyon made the list. This is because, according to Trulove, transportation funding has been a challenge statewide and there are many roadways, including Glenwood Canyon before the fire, that require rockfall mitigation and resources.

“The Grizzly Creek burn scar has added another layer of complexity,” she said, adding that it also doesn’t help that “this burn scar is right over one of the major arteries in Colorado.”

‘The only tool we have’

CDOT crews make progress cleaning up the lower eastbound decks of Interstate 70 on Monday, June 28, near mile marker 120 after a mudslide swept down the cliffs in Glenwood Canyon in the area of the Grizzly Creek burn scar the day before.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

Instead of mitigating risks, CDOT has been concerned with merely responding to these risks as they occur. Just this week, two separate flash flood warnings prompted the closure of the interstate through the canyon.

CDOT starts preparing once it receives a flash flood watch from the National Weather Service, sending out maintenance teams on standby at several closure locations along the highway.

And then, once the watch is upgraded to a warning, “when we get a warning, we’re moving to a safety closure for the canyon in an effort to not have vehicles in there when a potential debris flow happens,” Trulove said.

Of this response, Trulove said, “Right now that is really the only tool we have.”

In Eagle County, the Sheriff’s office is also watching for these warnings and closures, prompting its own response on Cottonwood Pass.

Alternative routes

One common alternative route when Glenwood Canyon closes is Cottonwood Pass, which has seen its fair share of accidents and delays over the years.
Adrian Hughes/Daily File Photo

Over the past few years, Cottonwood Pass, a local and scenic roadway, has become inundated with traffic as closures in Glenwood Canyon continue to increase. The roadway has seen its fair share of crashes, including a truck rollover earlier this summer.

Matt Koch, who has been an Eagle County resident for 15 years, drives Cottonwood Pass every day in the summer to get to his job in Garfield County. However, over the past few years, closures on I-70 have led to an influx of “weekend warriors and tourists,” on the roadway, Koch said.

“Basically, as soon as the EC Alert goes out that there’s a flash flood watch, I basically have to leave work and jump in my car and head home,” Koch said. “I’m in the very fortunate position that my boss is very understanding and they let me leave. I think about the guy or gal who doesn’t have that luxury; they have to be there until the job is done.”

This can often lead to locals being stranded and unable to get home from work.

“Many locals work and live on both sides of Cottonwood Pass, making it a very important route for them to utilize when the Canyon is closed,” wrote John Harris, from the Eagle County Road and Bridge department, in an email. “We are concerned about the viability of the route and passenger safety with increased traffic. Cottonwood Pass is not designed to handle a large volume of traffic.”

This situation has led the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office — in partnership with the town of Gypsum and Eagle County Road and Bridge — to create an incident management plan. In the event that CDOT closes I-70, the Sheriff’s Office will send out deputies to both sides of the pass where they will manage traffic until Eagle County Road and Bridge arrives and takes over management. In managing traffic, those stationed are slowing traffic and making sure those commercial vehicles and others over 35-feet in length are not driving over the pass.

“Narrow sections, steep grades and sharp curves make it difficult to handle the traffic during closures without the boots-on-the-ground traffic control the county and its partners have been providing,” Harris wrote.

The incident plan also includes investing in a number of warning and educational signs for out-of-state visitors and drivers that take on the pass.

It’s worth noting that CDOT specifically asks motorists not to use Cottonwood Pass as well as Hagerman Pass, Eagle/Thomasville Road or other county or Forest Service roads in Eagle, Garfield and Pitkin counties as a detour — although GPS routing systems will tell drivers to use those roads. Instead, the department recommends a northern alternate route using Colorado Highway 9, US Highway 40 and Colorado Highway 13. Really, there’s no good way around the closures.

Koch has noted these interventions and said that while they are helping — “I haven’t gotten stuck yet” — it’s not enough. In a letter to the Vail Daily, Koch referred to the road as “ill-prepared and ill-equipped.”

On the phone, Koch noted that guardrails and metering could help improve the drive and prevent accidents.

“I don’t think that Cottonwood should be a viable alternative route. I think it should remain quiet and sleepy for the ranchers as a scenic byway,” he said.

According to Harris, the county has made some road surface improvements and has “been in discussions on different levels of improvements and costs associated with them.” However, at this time, there is no planned funding to help aid the project.

Koch has been reaching out to local and state representatives to try and raise some noise about the pass, and it’s need — as well as I-70’s need — for repairs and financial investments.

“I know it’s an astronomical amount of money, but when you start stacking that against all the commerce that gets stopped and the trickle down of having 70 closed for a day or a couple of hours. The supply chain just gets incredibly disrupted and it’s not just Coloradans, it’s everywhere, it’s national,” he said. “I would encourage the other travelers to speak up and contact their representatives, and if we unify and make our voices heard, action will hopefully be taken.”

Colorado looks to lease firefighting helicopter as part of legislation aimed at stopping wildfires before they grow

Colorado is looking to lease a Firehawk helicopter, which would allow firefighters to respond to fires quickly in an attempt to put them out before they spread.
Photo by Skip Robinson / Sikorsky

 

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The three largest wildfires in Colorado’s recorded history occurred last year, leaving lawmakers looking for solutions to combat the devastation. A bipartisan bill soon to be introduced in the state Legislature would fund a specialized helicopter to fight fires fast, while they are still small.

State Sen. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale — who represents Senate District 8 — is a prime sponsor on a package of bills meant to address wildfire prevention, one of which would fund a Firehawk helicopter.

“It’s a helicopter that can fly fast, survive wind currents, and we can get it to fires very quickly and get them out before they explode like (East) Troublesome,” Rankin said. “The number of fires, relative to past years, really show that we have to do a much more aggressive job than we did in the past because we have more fires.”

The Firehawk also can fight fires at night, when wind and heat are generally lower.

There is bipartisan support for the helicopter, and it was proposed by Gov. Jared Polis in his budget for the upcoming fiscal year. It’s part of a $78 million package for wildfire relief, mitigation and prevention.

On Wednesday, Polis thanked Rankin and the bill’s House sponsor Rep. Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, during his State of the State address.

It “will help give Colorado the tools we need to catch and suppress wildfires before they get out of hand,” Polis said.

McCluskie said Colorado Department of Public Safety officials identified the Firehawk as a “game changer” when it comes to locating and suppressing fires quickly when they start.

Mutual-aid agreements mean local firefighters respond to any fire within their district, but they sometimes cannot get to a fire with their vehicles.

“One of the primary goals of having helicopters available in our region is to respond to smoke reports and potentially spot fires as they are in their starting phase,” Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue Chief Chuck Cerasoli said.

Cerasoli’s team fought the Middle Fork Fire, which burned more than 20,000 acres in a wilderness area north of Steamboat Springs in the fall, a fire he said started in sagebrush and spread fast. Some helicopters were able to dump a few buckets of water on it before it was able to spread very far.

“The key is to catch fires very early, so having that air support is a tremendous asset for us,” Cerasoli said.

A helicopter releases a bucket of water on the Dice Hill Fire on July 21 on the north end of Summit County. The fire was contained to 27 acres.
Photo by Jason Connolly / Jason Connolly Photography

The firefighting aircraft is converted from a Sikorsky Blackhawk helicopter by United Rotorcraft based in Englewood and costs about $24 million. The aircraft would not be owned by the state; instead, Colorado would opt to lease the helicopter when needed.

“We use helicopters extensively, but they are those with the bucket underneath,” Rankin said. “(The Firehawk) can get on to the small fires in bad conditions much more quickly.”

The Firehawk doesn’t use a bucket. Instead it has a tank mounted to the bottom that can carry up to 1,000 gallons of water, about three times the capacity of the bucket, and can be filled in 45 seconds. The chopper also can carry about a dozen fully geared firefighters to allow them fast access to a fire.

With the tank full of water, it can still maneuver at about 140 mph. If a water source is within 6 miles of the wildfire, the Firehawk can drop up to 16,000 gallons of water an hour.

“(Los Angeles) County pioneered this. They came to Sikorsky in the very late 1990s,” said Frans Jurgens, a spokesperson for Sikorsky, which is owned by Lockheed Martin.

In the early 2000s, Los Angeles County got three Firehawks — each of which are still in use — and pioneered fighting fires with them, Jurgens said. Now, Los Angeles County owns five, San Diego owns one, and Cal Fire, California’s forest and fire protection department, owns three with nine more on order. Jurgens said there is interest in the helicopters from other Western states, as well.

“The military design of the Blackhawk is key also to this mission because you need a battle-grade aircraft that can carry 8,000 pounds of water, drop it and do that multiple times throughout the course of the day,” Jurgens said.

When leased, the helicopter will be controlled by the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps, which is part of the state’s Department of Public Safety. The helicopter can be used for other missions, too, like search and rescue.

One of the bills in the package Rankin is working on is a supplemental budget bill that moves about $13 million into three funds. Because the bill is supplemental, Rankin said the money could be spent now, rather than waiting for the new fiscal year. A third bill in the package would implement recommendations around wildfire mitigation.

“The forests are in bad shape, and when a small fire starts, it can explode quickly,” Rankin said. “We have funds for mitigation, we have funds for protection and suppression, and we have funds for restoration.”

The bill gives grants to local governments to get local resources to carry out mitigation efforts. Still, this can get complicated because forests often involve several levels of government oversight.

“If we can all partner to address the highest-risk area first and work from there, then mitigation efforts can do a lot of good,” Cerasoli said.

This story is from SteamboatPilot.com.

Colorado officials hold summit to get public feedback on wildfire mitigation and recovery

The East Troublesome Fire burns over Granby in October. On Thursday, Feb. 18, Colorado officials hosted a public listening session to gain insights on the impacts and potential solutions to combat growing concerns about wildfires in the state.
Photo by Eli Pace / Sky-Hi News

During a virtual panel discussion Thursday afternoon, Colorado officials emphasized a need for more cooperation among federal, state and local actors in Colorado’s fight against wildfires.

Rep. Joe Neguse, who serves Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District, hosted a public listening session Thursday, Feb. 18, to gain insights on the impacts and potential solutions to combat growing concerns about wildfires in the state. The session featured a panel discussion between Neguse, Gov. Jared Polis, Colorado Department of Public Safety Director Stan Hilkey and Sens. John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet.

In the wide-ranging discussion, officials shared their perspectives on the changes necessary to protect Colorado’s public lands, property and lives, and they turned to residents for questions and to share their experiences with local wildfires in recent years.

“It doesn’t escape me that the most devastating fires of 2020 burned at a time of the year when snow should be falling,” Neguse said. “Clearly, with the impacts of climate change, the need to promote healthy forests, the impacts on watershed health and the need to protect homes and businesses, wildfires are just a complex issue for our communities. There really is no silver bullet, which is why these conversations are so important so that we can all candidly talk about what steps we might be able to take in the Congress and the Senate, and of course here in Colorado, working together to solve these incredible challenges.”

The challenges indeed are incredible. The state saw the three largest wildfires in its recorded history last year — the Cameron Peak Fire, East Troublesome Fire and Pine Gulch Fire — which scorched nearly 550,000 acres across the state, burning down hundreds of homes and claiming the lives of two Coloradans. Looking back on the destruction, exacerbated by climate change and historically poor forest management tactics, officials promised to work toward comprehensive and holistic solutions.

One prevailing theme throughout the session was a need for more robust national support for Coloradans and other Americans throughout the West dealing with a new age of megafires. Bennet said the issue would require a hegemonic shift in understanding about the dangers wildfires pose to the state’s infrastructure, environment and economy.

“One of the most important things we can do is change the way Congress thinks about our forests,” Bennet said. “Politicians in Washington need to understand that in Colorado, and across the West, forests are our infrastructure. They are as important to our state’s economy as the Lincoln Tunnel is to New York. But the truth is we have major challenges with this infrastructure. We’re now dealing with the consequences of a century of fire suppression and chronic underfunding for the Forest Service. When you combine that with climate change, it’s put the agency and state and local governments in a nearly impossible position. …

“We’re paying for wildfires after they happen rather than investing on the front end. That’s fiscally irresponsible, and … we need, I think, a major shift at the national level to prioritize forest restoration and wildfire mitigation — and a major investment to go with it.”

Bennet pointed to his bill, the Outdoor Restoration Force Act, which he said would spur a $40 billion federal investment in forest health, watershed restoration and climate resilience projects across the country; provide $20 billion in funds allocated to state and local governments; and create 2 million jobs in rural areas. Neguse also discussed the 21st Century Conservation Corps for Our Health and Our Jobs Act, which would allocate billions of dollars in funds to restore public lands and watersheds, improve forest health and reduce wildfire risks, among other endeavors.

Officials also highlighted the importance of local initiatives in the wildland-urban interface to mitigate wildfire risks. Polis likened at-home perimeter defense — like removing trees and building firewise homes — to biblical tales of Israelites marking their doors with lamb’s blood before the 10th plague on the Egyptians, saying that homeowner mitigation efforts can help the “angel of destruction” that is a wildfire pass over.

Hilkey lauded local governments like Summit County for its efforts to create fire breaks that helped to curb destruction during the 2018 Buffalo Mountain Fire, but he said focusing on the state’s ability to fight fires was equally important to protect communities.

“They had done an enormous amount of mitigation around the subdivision, but it alone did not save the subdivision,” Hilkey said. “It was also an aggressive initial attack. In any public policy conversation we have about wildfire in the American West, there’s sort of two major topics of conversation: mitigation and suppression. … Much of the time, it seems that people often try to choose one side or another. I want to encourage us all to resist the urge to do that and understand that mitigation and suppression need our full support. They’re symbiotic to a successful Colorado future when we’re talking about wildland fire.”

Prompted by questions from the public, Hilkey and other officials also discussed a need to work with communities to develop responsibly so chokepoints aren’t created during potential evacuations, and to work with local governments and emergency agencies to study and train for mass evacuations to ensure they can be done smoothly and safely.

Members of the public also asked for better information during wildfires to keep residents informed about the status of their homes and properties, more support and funding for firefighters, better recovery efforts for those who’ve lost their homes or livelihoods, and help working with insurance companies to make sure homeowners can be made whole again.

Officials promised to take the conversation to heart as they return to their duties.

“We’re in a place where we’ve got a decision to make about whether we’re going to stand up for the next generation of Coloradans and Americans and leave a legacy that matters,” Bennet said. “When you stand in a forest … that’s been treated the way it ought to be treated, it starts to look a little more like a forest might have looked when Native American people were in Colorado. It’s like standing in a cathedral. That could be our legacy if we pull together and really do the work that needs to be done. I’m grateful for this. This is a good, inspiring moment for us to take back to Washington and get to work.”

Courtney Walsh, a Boulder resident who lost her home in the Calwood Fire, called on all Coloradans to come together to deal with the growing problem.

“We feel really lucky,” Walsh said. “We have our lives. We have our family and friends. We can’t imagine getting through it without this amazing Boulder community. But I wouldn’t want anyone to go through what we’ve gone through. … All of us together have to work together to prevent future wildfires.”