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Grand County officials noticably missing from wildfire research discussion

Stephanie Miller
Sky-Hi Daily News

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) announced plans at a recent workshop that it has chosen Grand County as its main site to research the before, during and after-effects of a catastrophic wildfire.

“We could have picked any place in the country and we picked Grand County,” said Regional Executive for Geology, Randall Updike, who hosted the workshop.

USGS chose Grand County because it wanted a place with a lot of needs, Updike said.

For one, the county has a serious fire threat,” he said. “It has a growing wildland urban interface, and its supplies water to several communities along the Front Range. It also has ‘a real mosaic of landownership.'” Each landowner deals with forestry in a different way, he said.

“A lot of things came together, making Grand County a good place to do a demonstration project. It wasn’t that other counties don’t have equally serious fire hazard, but we needed to select just one county where we could get the most variables involved.

“We selected Grand County to demonstrate the range of capabilities USGS has for wildfire.”

The one-day workshop, held at the YMCA of the Rockies last week, provided an overview of what the USGS has discovered in its studies of fires in Colorado, and how it can use that research to identify fire hazards in Grand County, including developing ways to prevent water from becoming contaminated after a wildfire.

“The research will not prevent wildfires, but hopefully the kinds of things we can do before a fire, or kind of advice we can provide, might reduce the intensity of the fire, or reduce the rate of spread,” Updike said. “Or, at least help people be prepared. Then afterward, it will provide steps they need to take if the land was burned, and steps to reoccupy that land.”

The analysis is in its second year, and is estimated to be a three to four year project. Various resources, such as maps created from the research, will be available this year. And, every few months there will be new pieces of information, Updike said.

Members of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, the Denver Water Board, Grand County Water Information Network and Grand County Sheriff’s Department attended the workshop, but local representatives of Grand County government were not present.

“We were prepared for twice as many people,” Updike said. “I guess, I was a little bit disappointed.”

Members of the park service, U.S. Forest Service and the state forest service were there, he said, but as far as representatives from local entities, such as county commissioners, mayors, fire chiefs and private landowners ” “the participation there was less than I’d hoped.”

While the idea to further study Grand County’s wildfire situation is music to the ears, the absence of key public figures at the workshop begs the question: Is Grand County doing enough to ensure it is safe from a wildfire?

“No, I don’t feel Grand County is doing enough,” said Duane Dailey, who works for Grand County Department of Resources.

Dailey served as a Grand County Commissioner for eight years, and became very proactive in forest health during that time, he said.

“When I was in office, that’s what I was passionate about. It takes a lot of commitment. You have to go above and beyond.

“For a first-class presentation like that by the USGS, it’s too bad more people weren’t there to share the fruit.”

Doug Young, district policy director for Congressman Mark Udall, gave a talk at the start of the workshop about House Bill HR3072, and Senate Bill S1797 (Colorado Forest Management Improvement Act) ” two bills that will provide additional tools and resources to deal with fire threats, and implement projects communities want to see, Young said. The bills could provide $120 million to Colorado over a five-year period.

But in order for those bills to pass, communities need to make more noise.

“The squeaky wheel gets the grease. We need other members in Congress to be aware of it, and the way to do that is to get the noise level up,” Young said, emphasizing the need to communicate with locals that they must express their concerns to be heard.

At the USGS workshop, analysts often referred to Summit County’s studies on wildfire, which are ahead of Grand County’s despite Grand County having the mountain pine beetle problem first. State Representative Dan Gibbs, who represents House District 56, said Summit County has a meeting every other week with HOA members, the Summit County Bark Beetle Task Force, the U.S. Forest Service and occasionally guest speakers, such as Congressman Mark Udall.

One USGS representative referred to members of Summit County who flew to California to talk to residents, such as police officers, who had just experienced a catastrophic wildfire. They now use some of the management practices in Summit.

“It’s a very diverse group of folks (in Summit),” Gibbs said. “It took folks in the community saying, ‘We’re concerned with this issue.’ People really just came together to get these meetings going. It’s (also) been a wonderful resource in the community for education.”

Some credit Gibbs for Summit County’s wildfire awareness. Gibbs introduced HB1130, known as the Colorado Forest Restoration Act, which passed last year and gave funds for wildfire mitigation, and he visits the capitol in Denver and Washington, D.C. frequently, carrying a real mountain pine beetle to help create awareness. Many believe it’s that kind of leadership that gets counties noticed.

“We need to be much more aggressive,” Dailey said. “More proactive. It seems like we’ve come to a (military) mark time. I honestly don’t know where we’re going exactly.”

Dailey said the county needs to be purchasing heavy machinery, such as forestry mulching mowers. Dead trees needs to be used as merchandisable timber.

Residuals, like slash, should go to pellet mills. Most importantly, the forest needs re-growth, he said. “We need to be out on the ground doing something, and we’re not doing it.”

To be fair, Summit County does have some advantages to Grand County, Dailey said. It is more visible to the traveling public because of the nearby interstate, and it has roughly double the population. It’s also not as spread out as Grand County.

Summit is 619 square miles, whereas Grand County is 1,869 square miles.

“We’re more off the beaten path, and the towns are closer together. They’re more consolidated than Grand. Grand is vast and spread-out.”

Still, Summit has the passion, he added.

“They’re very proactive. They’re well organized and they have a passionate leader out there.”

Grand County Commissioner Nancy Stuart said Grand County was the first to experience problems with the mountain pine beetle, but despite efforts by Dailey, the issue was largely ignored.

“Duane Dailey was one of the first to start all of this and go to Washington about the dying trees,” Stuart said. “But nothing caught wind. Then a fire hit a Summit high school two to three years ago, and that’s when the media paid attention.”

Stuart added that the commissioners were unable to attend the USGS workshop because they were reviewing budget that week. But the county will be actively pursuing support by Congress and Washington, D.C. to pass the Colorado Forest Management Improvement Act, she said.

“We’ve actively talked with our congressmen and senators for years,” Stuart said. “You bet we’ll be pursuing that and I’m sure we’re actively pursuing monies right now.”

There are various efforts being put forth by Grand County to mitigate wildfires, but Dailey encourages more citizens to get involved, and help get new legislation passed. The legislative system is a frustrating thing, he said, and many members in Congress are still unaware of the bark beetle problem. That’s why citizen groups, HOA’s and property owners should organize amongst themselves, he added. He pointed out a couple HOA’s that have been successful: Sunset Ridge, which is very proactive, and there’s an HOA group in Grand Lake that has roughly 92 homeowners who have helped raise awareness and formed a grassroots effort, he said.

“The USGS is an important resource,” Dailey said. “And the more people that get involved in wildfire mitigation, the better.”

Attending workshops and meetings is part of the game.

“That’s the beauty of meetings ” it builds coalition, collaboration. One thing about it that’s exciting is we’re all in this together, and we understand that. Summit understands they’re all in it together.

“It’s too bad there weren’t more local participants there. It’s a wonderful resource. An overlooked resource.”


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