Preparing for wildfires

South Routt planning for spring 2005 blazes with forest thinning

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The U. S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are joining forces in their plans to reduce wildfire danger in the rapidly expanding Stagecoach area in South Routt County.

The Stagecoach Fuel Reduction Plan went into effect during summer 2003, but it is gaining momentum this summer to prepare for some significant prescribed burns in spring 2005. The interagency plan calls for a combination of prescribed burns and forest thinning on Routt National Forest and BLM lands around Stagecoach, in the Morrison Creek drainage to the south of Stagecoach and up Lynx Pass.

"It's kind of a pay-me-now or pay-me-later situation. We can either get rid of the fire danger now under a moderate hazard or wait for a wildfire," said Dale Beckerman, who is overseeing prescribed burns on BLM land near Stagecoach. "For most properties, it's not a matter of if it burns, but when."

Regardless, parts of the Stagecoach Fuel Reduction Plan are open for public comment, Beckerman said. He said the government agencies will hold public meetings before most of the proposed prescribed burns, especially ones that come close to existing homes.

"Where the public lands are meeting the private lands, we're trying to reduce fuels," U.S. Forest Service Fire Management Officer Kent Foster told a group of about 100 Stagecoach property owners at their annual meeting July 17.

The Stagecoach Fuel Reduction Plan is part of the BLM and forest service efforts to comply with the National Fire Plan of 1999, which directed public agencies to reduce hazardous fuels in areas near human development that are at risk from wildfire.

The Forest Service did one prescribed burn last spring near existing development in the Morrison Creek drainage. The 150-acre burn was mostly on sage and oak brush hillsides with south-facing slopes, Foster said.

"We wanted to do more, but the conditions weren't right," Foster said.

For last spring's Morrison Creek burn, firefighters used existing snowpack surrounding the site as their firebreak. Public land agencies will rely on the same tactic for other prescribed burns in the Stagecoach area.

Depending on how much snow falls during the winter, the BLM is planning a 384-acre prescribed burn directly behind the South Shore subdivision sometime in April. The proposed burn area is on hillsides just above Stagecoach Reservoir.

Beckerman estimated the proposed burn behind South Shore would take about two days to complete, but he also said that the BLM would not follow through with a burn so close to existing homes if spring 2005 is very dry. The BLM plans to take extra preventative measures for the burn throughout the fall, including bulldozing a fire line on the side of the prescribed burn area closest to homes and thinning small pine trees within the aspen stands to keep them less flammable.

This summer and fall, the Forest Service is hand-thinning an estimated 200 to 250 acres of dense forest next to private inholdings on Lynx Pass, hand-thinning 20 acres near the proposed South Shore burn and thinning the area around the Service Creek trailhead, up to the Service Creek Wilderness boundary.

One of the main targets for fuel reduction in the Stagecoach area is gamble oak, which fire managers say is especially volatile and burns extremely hot.

"Oak brush is very dangerous. It has killed more people fighting fires than any other habitats in Colorado," Beckerman said.

Along with gamble oak, the fuel reduction plan intends to reduce serviceberry, chokecherry, sage and snowberry growth. Prescribed burning will regenerate the plants, but with fewer limbs and fewer leaves, public land managers said.

Beckerman estimated that the sage and gamble oak hillsides around Stagecoach probably haven't burned for more than 60 years. After the prescribed burn, everything will re-sprout, but it probably will take at least 20 years to bring back any kind of significant sage growth in the burn areas, he said.

An influx of mountain pine beetles and spruce beetles, which kill their host trees and leave them standing, is adding to the buildup of combustible fuels in the Stagecoach area.

Foster said the Forest Service always has seen mountain pine beetles in the Morrison Creek drainage, but now the forest service is seeing much more evidence of the beetles' presence on private lands and at lower elevations. The Stagecoach Fuel Reduction Plan includes measures to create buffers around some of the tree stands that are most susceptible to beetles.

In addition to less flammable forests, public land managers predict that improved wildlife habitat, especially for elk, will be an added benefit of their vegetation thinning efforts around Stagecoach.

--To reach Jennie Lay call 871-4210

or e-mail jlay@steamboatpilot.com

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