The day that Breckenridge got lucky

Bags were packed, but then the wind shifted. Emergency over—for this time

by Allen Best

Breckenridge was full of people the day last summer that fire erupted in the nearby Tenmile Range. “It was scary. It was so close,” says Peter Grosshuesch, the town’s director of planning.

July 5 was a warm day, even at 9,600 feet in elevation. The three feet of wet, spring snow that had doused Summit County six weeks before had vanished. More important than daytime heat was uncommon overnight warmth: temperatures dropped only to about 60, instead of the normal 40s.

Grosshuesch watched the smoke billow into the sky from his office in Breckenridge, about four miles away. “Everybody got real serious, real fast,” he remembers.

Flames pushed 150 feet above the top of the trees as the fire roared through stands of lodgepole pine, both live and dead, then invaded the band of spruce-fir.

High wind can easily send firebrands aloft for a mile and onto roofs and into front yards. Residents in the most vulnerable neighborhood near Breckenridge, a rural subdivision called Peak 7, were evacuated. But some had begun wondering if this fast-moving fire would reach Breckenridge itself.

Then the winds shifted again, turning the blaze back on itself. The fire was contained and then extinguished. The emergency was over—this time.

All bets were off as the fire billowed smoke above the Tenmile range, then the wind shifted, turning the blaze back on itself. Photos/Summit County

“We were very lucky,” says Scott Fitzwilliams, supervisor of the White River National Forest, on whose lands the fire occurred. The winds, had they not changed, might well have pushed the fire through the rural subdivision and to the Breckenridge ski resort. Beyond was Breckenridge, the town. “It looked like there was nothing to stop it.”

The question posed by the Breckenridge fire is whether enough has been done to abate the risk. It’s a question worth pondering far beyond Colorado’s Summit County as fire season lengthens and intensifies even as construction of homes continues into what is called the wildland-urban interface.

Mountain towns this summer had many reasons to be reminded of their own risks. Smoke in Whistler from fires in the interior of British Columbia was “ungodly,” in the words Grosshuesch, who was there for a visit. Fires also raged in Montana and Idaho while the beetles killing spruce trees in southern Colorado continued northward toward Crested Butte.

This autumn, wildfire has killed 42 people in the wine country north of San Francisco and destroyed 5,700 homes and other structures. The Napa Valley has a different climate, drier and more Mediterranean, than ski towns.

But there’s also this: high mountain towns are warming, perhaps more rapidly than lower elevations. It’s possible the fire risk is also escalating more rapidly. That’s one of the possible take-aways that came within a strong wind during July of incinerating Breckenridge.

Asbestos forests

Large-scale wildfires have always occurred in high mountain valleys, if perhaps not very often. For example, paleoecological research has shown evidence of a large-scale fire in the early 1600s that burned much of the forest in the Fraser Valley, home to Winter Park.

Fires, however, were virtually unknown as resort communities were built around ski areas during the 1960s and 1970s. It was a cooler, wetter time, and many forests had been logged heavily in the century before. The trees were still relatively young, and those fires that did occur were quickly suppressed.

Breckenridge and Summit County—and many other mountain communities—continued to believe they were different, their forests more like asbestos, yet still lovely. Who among the oldest residents—and to be clear, there weren’t that many older residents in the young ski towns—could remember anything else?

That same sense of exceptionalism continued even as fires raged most of the summer of 1988 in Yellowstone National Park and then, in the 1990s, in the foothills along Colorado’s Front Range southwest of Denver.

Then came 2002, hot winds in April eviscerating the thin snowpack and producing a peak runoff six weeks early that was almost too feeble to be noticed. In the first weekend of June, major forest fires erupted near Durango, in Glenwood Springs, and west of Colorado Springs, the latter going on to burn 138,000 acres.

This rendering projects a 650 percent increase (red) in acreage burned as the result of a 1.8 degree F increase in temperature. Source: Union of Concerned Scientists and the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization

Residents of Breckenridge and Summit County began looking at their nearby forests differently. They had been instinctively opposed both to timber sales and even thinning of forests. Those attitudes had been mirrored in requirements by Breckenridge and other local jurisdictions that special permits be obtained before trees could be removed from around homes. The story was told—Grosshuesch has heard it, but could not confirm it—that the writer Mitch Albom, author of “Tuesdays with Morrie,” had been fined once for cutting a tree on his property in Breckenridge.

Dead trees provided another visual reminder about the vulnerability of forests. Aging stands of lodgepole pine around Breckenridge, Vail, and several other Colorado ski towns had been weakened by drought. Aided by warming nighttime temperatures, beetles proliferated as never before observed in historical times in the Colorado Rockies.

Summit County heeded those visual cues. In 2006, the county adopted a community wildfire protection plan. A wildlife council continues to meet regularly. In 2008, voters approved property tax assessments that yield $500,000 a year for grants to assist neighborhoods and homeowners’ associations. The money can also be used to create water cisterns, to assist firefighters. A portable wood-chipper was purchased with the money, and it is taken to every street in the county at least twice a year.

Insurance companies have also pushed for efforts to provide what is called defensible space, by removing vegetation around homes. In some instances insurance companies are asking homeowners to have their properties inspected by the local fire districts.

“We used to require people to preserve trees and use them to screen development as much as possible,” says Jim Curnutte, the county planning director. “We would not let you cut down a tree. Now, we might require you to cut down a tree, because of the defensible space ordinance of the building code. If you come in for a new permit or a substantial remodel, you have to meet your defensible space requirements.”

Vegetation must be at least 30 feet from a structure and in some cases 100 feet. But under Colorado law, statutory-rule town and county governments cannot impose defensive space requirements retroactively; only home-rule governments such as Breckenridge and Pitkin County can.

Social license to cut trees

Summit County Commissioner Dan Gibbs, who is also a wildland firefighter, says that all planning now assumes fires will occur. “It’s not a matter of if but rather of when we have more fires in our community,” he says.

As a firefighter, he has worked in California and elsewhere. “I have seen homes with defensible space that were saved, and I have seen homes where vegetation is connected to houses, and those homes have been destroyed,” he says. It’s not an absolute, he adds, but he also knows that firefighters will spend more time trying to save a home with defensible space for a simple reason: they have improved chances of success.

Area above Dillon Reservoir, seen in the upper left, before thinning and then after. Photos/Denver Water

Educating homeowners about wildfire risk is important, but Gibbs say there’s often a difference in attitudes between locals and those who are second-home owners. The non-residents more generally resist efforts to impose defensible space around buildings.

In Summit County, the beetle epidemic gave the Forest Service social license to cut trees from 12,000 to 15,000 acres.

“What chance do you think there was of doing that before the bark beetle?” Fitzwilliams asks.

The Forest Service has spent $18 million in the last 10 to 12 years in forest thinning, clearing roads and trails and other work related to removing vegetation in Summit County. Some has been sold to sawmills, but there’s little revenue from that. “We have low value trees,” explains Fitzwilliams of lodgepole pine.

Denver Water has been a major partner in this new work. It collects water for diversion to the Denver metropolitan area from a tunnel at Dillon Reservoir; the agency provides water for 1.4 million people, a quarter of all Colorado residents. The water agency has found forest fires expensive. Two hot-burning fires, in 1996 and then in 2002, caused heavy erosion into Denver’s reservoirs in the foothills southwest of the city. The soils there are highly erosive and granitic by nature. The reservoirs had to be dredged, with incomplete success.

Better and less expensive than remediation, the agency decided, would be prevention.

In a program called Forest to Faucets, Denver in 2010 partnered with state and federal forestry agencies to thin forests in Summit County and the Winter Park area. The city draws water from both areas.

Fires sop up Forest Service budget

Denver Water in February announced a five-year renewal of the partnership, putting in $16.5 million to match like amounts from the state and federal agencies for continuing thinning of forests. The first phase also saw 750,000 trees being planted.

In announcing the commitment, Denver Water’s CEO Jim Lochhead said Congress should take heed of what Denver and other water providers, including Aurora and Colorado Springs are doing.Instead of allocating massive amounts of money

for putting out fires, he said, Congress should provide more money to the Forest Service for forest management in critical areas.

That same point was made by Fitzwilliams, the White River supervisor, in an August meeting with officials from Colorado ski towns. He said fire suppression used to account for 15 percent of the Forest Service budget nationally, but has grown to 55 percent. This year it will probably push 60 percent. “So much of our money is in managing these large, expensive wildfires,“ he says.

Ironically, fire suppression in the past is partly to blame for the growing threat. In recent decades, foresters have taken a more measured approach about when to let fires burn and when to put them out.

But if cutting trees is one obvious solution to the threat of fires, ecologists warn it cannot be the only answer: There are simply too many trees.

“Treatments in and of themselves are not going to save the day in terms of changing patterns of fire,” says Ray Rasker of Headwaters Economics in Bozeman, Mont. Treatments do make sense in targeted areas, such as what Denver Water is doing, he adds. But like Fitzwilliams, he stresses that fire altogether cannot be contained. It’s part of the ecosystem. Instead, communities need to adapt themselves to living within a fire ecosystem, he says. His consultancy, working with two others, helped Summit County create its community plan.

Speaking with members of the Colorado Association of Ski Towns in August, Fitzwilliams emphasized the words “conversations” and “responsibilities” among communities, land managers, and local governments. He thinks many tools— including prescribed fire and thinning—must be employed. He hopes to see greater age diversity in trees stands and some deliberate manipulation of forests in the wildland-urban interface to promote species such as aspen, which are somewhat less fire prone.

This rendering projects a 650 percent increase (red) in acreage burned as the result of a 1.8 degree F increase in temperature. Source: Union of Concerned Scientists and the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization from their report, Rocky Mountain Forests at Risk.

And warming temperatures

All this will be needed, if a trend noticed by Brad Piehl at the Peak 2 fire becomes more prevalent. He’s a watershed planner whose company, JW Associates, works with Denver, Colorado Springs, and other cities that draw water from high mountain valleys.

Piehl himself lives near Breckenridge and watched the Peak 2 fire from his home with this important characteristic: It started in lodgepole pine and, after continuing to warm up on the downed logs, then invaded spruce-fir. This is a changed dynamic, previously observed last year in Colorado’s North Park. It also puts high-mountain resorts at greater risk.

Piehl, in speaking with Colorado Association of Ski Town members in August, also showed a slide (above) that represents the changing species that may result from warmer temperatures predicted as a result of accumulating greenhouse gas emissions.

Fire season is lengthening, some say by 75 days. That seems too much for Summit County, says Piehl. But even if it’s just 30 days more each year, “we’re still in trouble,” he adds. “That’s still a significant change.”

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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