A coalition of six local entities is looking into the feasibility of a large prescribed burn in the upper Hunter Creek Valley next spring to improve wildlife habitat and help eliminate fuels that have built up, and pose a threat of feeding a natural wildfire.
The Aspen Fire Department, Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES), Wilderness Workshop, Pitkin County, the city of Aspen and the U.S Forest Service are taking a collaborative look at the proposed burn.
“It’s rare to see a diverse group like this all pulling toward the same goal,” said Will Roush, conservation director at Wilderness Workshop, in a joint statement. “We’re excited that so many partner organizations are working together to restore fire to the landscape and reduce the risk posed by catastrophic wildfire.”
The exact location for the burn has not yet been selected, but areas with steep slopes on the north side of the Hunter Creek Valley, near the lower plunge trail and Hummingbird traverse, are being looked at, the statement noted. It added that recreational trails in that area will likely be closed during the burn.
The burn will target areas thick with mature Gambel oak, shrubs, and aspen trees, helping new growth thrive and supply forage for deer, elk, bears, and other forest denizens.
“The plan isn’t to create a firebreak, but hopefully we will remove a substantial amount of fuels from the area and this will have beneficial impacts for any future natural fires in the area,” said Jim Genung, fuels and fire specialist with the White River National Forest, in the statement.
Thinning the fuel near Aspen will help make the community safer in the event of a natural wildfire.
Valerie MacDonald, the county’s emergency manager, said this spring that wildfire is the greatest threat to Pitkin County.
The Forest Service will plan and implement the actual burn, and the Aspen Fire Department will assist with safety measures, the statement noted.
“In light of the recent catastrophic fires happening across the West in areas like California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho, it is now more important than ever to work collaboratively across the landscape to reduce fuels and improve forest health in critical areas surrounding communities,” noted Karen Schroyer, Aspen-Sopris District ranger, in the statement.
While the plan is to ignite the burn next spring, the decision to move forward will be dependent on weather and moisture conditions in the area.
According to a Forest Service information sheet, burn plans factor in temperature, humidity, wind, moisture of the vegetation, and conditions for the dispersal of smoke, and specialists compare conditions on the ground to those in the burn plan before deciding whether or not to start the fire. A smoke permit must also be obtained from the state’s air pollution control division, and both Schroyer and WRNF Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams would have to approve the burn plan as well.
“We are pleased to be working closely with the White River National Forest on this,” said Parker Lathrop, deputy fire chief at the Aspen Fire Department, in the statement. “Firefighter and public safety are the highest priority for both agencies and the burn will not take place unless conditions are just right.”
Gary Tennenbaum, assistant director for Pitkin County Open Space and Trails, called the move a great opportunity to not only “decrease the risk of catastrophic wildfire,” but also to help educate residents about the benefits of prescribed fire.
A similar burn was conducted on 1,300 acres near Basalt in April, and impacts to the adjacent community were called “minimal.”
A National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process approved the use of both prescribed fire and mechanical treatments in the nearly 4,681 acre Hunter-Smuggler Cooperative Plan area, the statement noted.
The Forest Service employs prescribed burns and mechanical treatments to thin combustable materials on two to three million acres of federal lands each year.
Public input on the prescribed burn is being sought, and an open house is planned for early 2016. A public site visit to the area is scheduled for 4 p.m. on Oct. 14. Interested residents can RSVP with Roush at (970) 963-3977 or Jamie Cundiff at ACES (970) 925-5756.
“It’s great to see this group working on such an ambitious goal,” added Chris Forman, parks operations manager for the city of Aspen. “We’ll not only be improving the land for wildlife, but this prescribed fire will reduce the risk to our community.”
Benefits of prescribed burns:
• Reduces hazardous fuels, helping to protect human communities from extreme fires.
• Minimizes the spread of pest insects and disease.
• Removes unwanted species that threaten species native to an ecosystem.
• Provides forage for game.
• Improves habitat for threatened and endangered species.
• Recycles nutrients back to the soil.
• Promotes the growth of trees, wildflowers, and other plants.
— U.S Forest Service