Many of the hills along Routt County Road 129 are covered with 50-year-old scrub oak, all near the end of its lifecycle, tall and ready to burn.
Public land managers have begun a study called the "Big Creek Ridge Prescribed Fire" that covers a 23,000-acre area along CR 129, in which they hope to come up with a consensus from public agencies and private landowners about how to prevent large-scale fires in the area, said Rob Sexton, spokesman for the Routt National Forest. The area has been identified on the federal register as having a high risk for wildfire, he said.
"Scrub oak is the most dangerous type of vegetation (in wildfires)," Sexton said. "It burns extremely fast, then it tends to flash and reignite and burn a second time."
Sexton stressed that plans for preventing large-scale fires are in very early stages. Typically, the U.S. Forest Service would come up with a plan or proposal, then ask for feedback. This time, they're talking with people who live in the area and other agencies first.
"We're looking at a public-private partnership," Sexton said. "We're trying to build a consensus."
Through this process, land managers are telling landowners what the danger is as they see it, describing what recommended actions could be, then asking for feedback. After feedback is collected, a formal proposal will be made.
There is a need for consensus from various groups as the area of interest involves private land, national forest, BLM land and state forest, as well as land owned by the Colorado land trust.
"There are a lot of landlords," Sexton said. "It has all got to be coordinated, and everybody has to be on board."
About 23,000 acres have been surveyed, with suggested treatments ranging from mechanical thinning, in which shrubs are cut, stacked and burned or taken away, to prescribed burns.
Those steps to reduce fuels in the area create "speed bumps" around homes and private property.
"When (fire) gets to those speed bumps, it slows down and goes down on the ground and is easier to manage," Sexton said.
Land managers met with private property owners in the area on Wednesday for an initial discussion. Sexton said that from that meeting, land managers learned that there is not yet a consensus on what should be done. One person said nature should take its course; several asked for more information; and one said fuel reduction should start as soon as possible.
Plans for the study include a lengthy timeline that allows several years of research and planning before implementation, Sexton said.
"The whole area is developing rather quickly," Sexton said. "As more and more people are introduced into it, the likelihood of it burning increases dramatically."
A public meeting about the study will be held in August.
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