As smoke billowed across the lower reaches of the Collegiate Peaks southwest of Buena Vista on Easter Sunday, neighbors’ cell phones beeped with evacuation notices and firefighters closed off rural roads to the site. The blaze grew to nearly 28 acres before firefighters wrangled it under control by late afternoon.
It was a small fire that was contained quickly and also a reminder that wildfire can happen at almost any time in Chaffee County, said Salida District Ranger Jim Pitts.
“The normal isn’t so normal,” Pitts said. “We’re definitely behind on our winter moisture.” He noted that local snowpack was 66 percent of average as of mid-April.
With the threat of wildfire on many people’s minds, Envision Chaffee County is encouraging all community members to attend and engage in a panel discussion from 6:30-8 p.m. on Tuesday, May 8, at Poncha Springs Town Hall.
The emphasis is a strong group effort between public agencies, private property owners and the community.
Pitts said the session is an opportunity to have a common dialogue around current conditions and the facts about current weather conditions. He added that public participation is extremely important in order to share values and concerns and to set action plans moving forward.
After more than a century of fire suppression, Chaffee County’s forests are not in a natural state, he explained. Overly dense stands of trees and widespread insect infestations create the threat of large wildfires in the community.
In contrast to a wildfire such as the Easter Sunday fire, some wildfires can burn so hot that they kill thousands of trees and “bake” the soil, destroying seeds and making it difficult for the forest to regenerate.
Wildfires can also cause floods and debris flows, he said. These torrents of mud, rocks and tree limbs impact creeks, rivers and water supplies and bring sediment down into reservoirs, which can reduce water storage capacity and water quality.
Multiple area agencies and local citizens are working to increase forest treatments to help prevent the risk of a large wildfire in Chaffee County. Treatments involve controlled burns and tree thinning on federal lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service and on state lands managed by the Colorado State Forest Service.
The effort also emphasizes actions that private landowners can take to reduce fire danger, and it strongly encourages their involvement – not only to help prevent wildfires but to increase the overall health of forests.
Working collaboratively through the Envision process, local agencies and the community have set a goal to double treatments on both public and private lands. Cooperating agencies aim to treat 40,000 acres in Chaffee County by 2030, which is about 1 percent of treatable land per year. The close collaboration between agencies and the community is an approach that is unique to Chaffee County, and the combined effort helps create forest vigor well into the future.
“Envision plays an important role to assist in sharing information and public input to land managers throughout the county. This unique opportunity is crucial for learning and sharing,” Pitts said.
The panel will include Colorado State Forest Service Southwest Area Manager Damon Lange, County Commissioner Greg Felt, U.S. Forest Service Fire Management Officer Chris Naccarato and Pitts.