The High Country Forest Collaborative (a re-envisioned version of the successful Colorado Bark Beetle Collaborative) met in Carbondale at the Fire Protection District on April 28th. The wider mission of the group is “community forest resilience.” One key topic for forest health is reversing the suppression focused approach to wildfire which has altered the natural burn intervals of forest ecosystems, and made the forest less healthy. The upshot of decades of active fire suppression has been hotter, more dangerous fires, and increased risk to mountain communities.
The focus of this meeting was a review of the April 2016 prescribed fire in Aspen at the doorstep of some of the most valuable real estate in the world, and the multi-jurisdictional effort required to pull off such an audacious planned incident.
Scott Fitzwilliam, White River National Forest Supervisor cited the Beaver Creek Fire in Jackson County last summer which “changed assumptions about what fire does.” He told the group, “75% of our organization is focused on putting out fires. Maybe it is time to switch to more planners and burn bosses. We cannot cut our way out of this problem. We cannot suppress our way out of this problem.”
In the far ranging discussion in the afternoon with the HCFC group, Jim Genung, Fuels Specialist for Aspen Sopris Ranger district, who is the planner/burn boss his Fitzwilliam is referencing, warned elected officials “you will be at the meeting when it comes to your town” if you don’t get active with mitigation and prescribed burning.
Ron Biggers, Glenwood Springs Fire Marshall has spent years following the Storm King and Coal Seam Fires that ravaged his town, educating homeowners and working to bring grant money to the community for mitigation efforts. He agreed that even that effort is not enough. Biggers said, “we need to be putting fire on the ground so we can fight fire on our terms, rather than natures” when it is near our communities, and noted that “we don’t tell the story of how important mitigation and preparations are; for instance, the save rate of 82% of the homes from the Waldo Canyon Fire,” meant that one of the most damaging fires in Colorado Springs history would have been 82% more damaging to homes had the community not put great effort ahead of time. “Who hears about that,” said Biggers.
That sentiment was shared by the group made up mostly of representatives from various agencies in the upper Roaring Fork who spend the morning sharing how they spent more than a year preparing for the fire. We were “working towards a greater acceptance in the community for prescribed fire” as our goal, stated Ben Carson, Aspen City forester who set the stage for Will Roush, Conservation Director from Wilderness Workshop who showed a video of the planning efforts behind the fire. Convincing the community of why it was important to set fire to the forest as close to their property as possible took a very elaborate public relations plan which involved hikes, noted Rouch. He put a long list of “weed pulls,” publications and meetings on the screen. The selling point was on the day of the Hunter Creek prescribed burn with a smoke plume that went thousands of feet into the sky within sight of Aspen on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in April, resulted in no 911 calls. In a similar prescribed fire, the summer before on Basalt Mountain there were more than 400 calls.
The rock star of the presentation was Jim Genung, who spent the better part of an hour describing how the incident was planned, and how the public relations
effort was written into the overall NEPA document for the fire. The entire incident was “in a box that could be unpacked for another event.” He passed around the ping pong ball sized ignition sources which require an injection of glycol when dropped from a helicopter to ignite. Explaining to the group how the fire was set and managed was clearly the highlight of the morning. After describing the extensive meteorological circumstances required for the event to get the go-ahead, and hearing the HCFC group pining about the need to change public perceptions about fire, he said “I would like nothing better than to fly with a bunch of ping pong balls in perfect conditions in the spring and go dropping balls. We could burn 10,000 acres safely with fewer people, and improve the forest.”
Everyone agreed that in spite of efforts to educate the public about living with fire, we have a long ways to go before that day comes. Sloan Shoemaker, Executive Director of the Wilderness Workshop asked rhetorically, “How can groups like this help?” Fitzwilliams replied, “Help us find common denominator projects that focus on ecosystem services as federal land managers. Tell the story on economic terms.” The High Country Forest Collaborative group closed out the day discussing with Fitzwilliam how they could work with the White River National Forest towards the next successful prescribed burn.