Summit County fire officials wary about proposed new wilderness

Summit County fire officials wary about proposed new wilderness

22 January 2010

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USA — Environmental groups are working with local officials to ensure a proposed wilderness area doesn’t create new risks for wildfires.

The Hidden Gems Wilderness Campaign hopes to gain wilderness designation for about 400,000 acres of land in the White River National Forest and Gunnison National Forest in Summit, Eagle, Pitkin and Gunnison counties. The proposal would enlarge some existing wilderness areas in Summit County, such as Ptarmigan Wilderness, and would also create new stand-alone wilderness areas, including part of the Tenmile Range and the area east of Hoosier Pass.

Some local officials have raised concerns about their ability to prevent and fight wildfires, should wilderness areas be located too close to private lands and water supplies.

“Our concerns are centered on wildfire mitigation efforts going on in our community right now and over the next several years,” said Red White and Blue Fire chief Gary Green. “We have concerns about our ability to see some of those things get accomplished.”

Fuels reduction efforts, fire suppression and post-fire remediation are more tightly controlled in wilderness areas than they are on public lands without wilderness designation. Restrictions are especially stringent on any mechanized work, including use of chainsaws, bulldozers and aircraft.

“Emergency responders want to be able to have as many tools and resources as possible if there is a catastrophic event in Summit County,” said state Sen. Dan Gibbs, who serves as Summit County’s wildfire mitigation specialist and sits on the Summit County Wildfire Council. “The fire-fighting community would like to see the Hidden Gems proposal not be in the county’s wildland-urban interface area. That’s really where the concern is.”

Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue deputy chief Jeff Berino said the proposed addition to Ptarmigan Wilderness would be too close to private land in some spots.

“We can live with that in low-density ranch lands at the north end of the county,” Berino said. “But in some of the higher-density areas around Hamilton Creek and Ptarmigan (neighborhood), we have an increased chance of having to do fire suppression or mitigation. We feel we need a half-mile of established wildland-urban interface.”

Town of Breckenridge community development director Peter Grosshuesch has concerns about the proposed Tenmile Wilderness and Hoosier Ridge Wilderness areas, since they would include drainages that feed into Goose Pasture Tarn, the town’s water source.

“There are things that we’d like to do both before and after a fire that would minimize wildfire impact on our watershed,” Grosshuesch said.

After a wildfire, water supplies can become contaminated with debris and sediment. Construction of sediment-capture ponds can reduce erosion into waterways, but such projects require heavy equipment not allowed in a wilderness area.

“The other thing we might want to do is fuels reduction in certain areas if our analysis shows there are going to be problem spots. We may want to get in there in advance to do fuels treatments in the forest so a fire doesn’t burn as hot,” Grosshuesch added.

Hidden Gems proponents have been very receptive to local input on boundary modifications, according to several local officials.

“I think the folks with Hidden Gems have moved a long way to address concerns related to wildfire,” said Steve Hill, assistant county manager. “We have a few more issues to work through, but they’ve modified their proposal to address local concerns.”

“I feel our conversations have been very positive,” Gibbs said. “The Hidden Gems proponents have been very interested in hearing the perspectives from the fire-fighting community, and they’ve been willing to adjust boundaries.”

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