In an effort to protect Chaffee County from the ravages of wildfire — a threat known only too well in this county after last year’s Decker Fire — the front of Methodist Mountain is set to become the latest object of attention from the Envision Forest Health Council (EFHC) partners.
Major mitigation is planned for the foothills of Methodist Mountain; creating a five-mile-long area of fuel breaks to protect the southern flank of the Salida and Poncha Springs communities of 7,000 people from a wildfire. The forest treatments will encompass 1,500 acres on both public and private lands.
The project links to the Decker Fire burn area, where fuel loads were reduced by last fall’s lightning-sparked wildfire, and connects to 800 acres on CR 108 of work completed by the Bureau of Land Management (see map).
“The Decker Fire burned the eastern side of Methodist Mountain but there are still heavy fuel loads in the forest,” said Salida District Ranger Jim Pitts with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). “The Methodist Front project proactively addresses consequences as seen in recent Decker and Hayden Pass fires.”
Wildfire danger this year is extremely high for the early summer season. Heavy fuel loads in Chaffee County’s forests have combined with warmer, drier temperatures and wind events to increase the intensity and frequency of wildfires.
The EFHC partners have been working together for several months, first to create a county Wildfire Mitigation plan. This next stage, to coordinate the targeted effort for this mitigation work, involves detailed treatment planning, which must be in place before any on-the groundwork starts. The USFS work is just beginning, but that also entails planning.
The Forest Service is focusing on treatments within 1,000 acres on Cleveland Mountain. Private property work on nearly 500 acres is managed by the Salida Field Office of the Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS) to connect treatments on the city, state, and privately owned lands to create the fuel breaks. According to a release from the these EFHC partners, treatments decrease fire risk by creating “shaded” fuel breaks with groups of trees spaced about 15 feet apart.
The work will also protect the major Western Area Power Administration (WAPA) power transmission line and a critical communications site located to the south of U.S. Hwy 50.
According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife Area Wildlife Manager Jim Aragon, who is a member of the Forest Health Council, the Methodist Front project improves wildlife habitats by enhancing grass cover and forage for rabbit, turkey, and squirrels, as well as a variety of big game species
“This is an important winter range hub for elk, black bear and mule deer migrations,” said Aragon. “Our collar data show that deer winter here, then migrate across eight counties in the summer months to areas as far away as Breckenridge, the Wet Mountains and the San Luis Valley.”
The county’s recreational resources are also considered as the mitigation work is being planned. According to Aragon, the mitigation will protect the Gold Medal trout waters of the Arkansas River as well as the Herrington and Del Monte ditches by reducing the likely intensity of a wildfire in the forests above the South Arkansas River. The “Little Ark” flows through Poncha Springs and Salida, feeding into municipal drinking water supplies, agricultural lands, and wetlands.
Envision will host a community meeting in late summer to discuss the project in more detail and offer ample opportunity for questions/answers from the community.