Grand Lake looks to update its wildfire protection plan
February 2, 2012
GRAND LAKE – Although the beetles have moved on, fire odds remain a concern in the Grand Lake area.
Grand Lake, fire experts say, is now in the “gray stage” of the pine-beetle epidemic, meaning the forest’s beetle-killed trees have lost their needles; dead trees eventually fall, adding fire fuels to the forest floor. They also leave live trees vulnerable, which can topple during a windstorm, also adding to the fuels. Grasses and vegetation growing in a forest with fewer trees also can contribute to fuel loads.
During the next 15 to 25 years, experts say, the forest is vulnerable to hot and intense surface fires that are difficult to control.
But there is one silver lining, according to Grand Lake Fire Protection District Chief Mike Long.
“The town’s a safer place,” he said. “By removing the trees, be it green or brown, it has changed our ability to protect the town.
“Before the beetles came, people had a large number of trees on their properties. Some people even cut holes in their decks to allow their favorite tree to stay. And when you’ve got heavy fuel-loading like that, right next to wood-sided structures, I think that’s the highest hazard. If we had a heavy fire move through, there’s absolutely nothing we could do other than stay out of the way and go in after the flame threat has passed, and then go save what we could. Today, because all of those trees that were killed by the beetles were removed, we’re going to have a much lower intensity fire as it moves through town, which means I can keep fire crews in town.”
It’s been six years since the Grand Lake Fire Protection District adopted its Community Wildfire Protection Plan, a document that serves to help prepare a community for the event of a major wildfire.
Since then, as Long alluded, a lot has happened in the Grand Lake area.
Residents of subdivisions rallied to cut down trees, public agencies have taken out trees, and the beetles themselves have literally eaten themselves out of house and home and are no longer around.
Grand Lake Fire Chief Mike Long estimates as much as three-fourths of the projects identified in the district’s original Plan have been completed, and the priorities of others have shifted.
“We need to see what the next phase is,” Long said.
It’s these reasons, the Grand Lake Community Wildfire Protection Plan is being updated, and community members are needed to join in on the huddle.
Adjusting to the present
The new plan will serve to recognize what is left as a high priority, such as areas that are still fuels-heavy, mapping improvements, evacuation routes, sites that need special protection such as the water plant and the substation, and coordination of all of this information so that fire teams descending on Grand Lake during a large fire would all be on the same page.
During the first community meeting on the fire plan at the Grand Lake Fire Station on Jan. 24, several areas were identified as project-worthy, such as the Jericho Road neighborhood on the south shore of Grand Lake. There, trees property owners saved during the pine beetle epidemic are now potential threats to the overall fire safety of the neighborhood, Long said. There would be a better chance at saving homes if more trees were removed.
Slash piles left by the work of federal agencies were highlighted as another concern. Paul Mintier, former U.S. Forest Service fire management officer who has been contracted by Grand Lake Fire to update its plan, said the burn piles are a work-in-progress and forest officials have been made aware of community concerns.
And other isolated pockets of untreated private property have been identified, such as a large swath of private land next to the Grand Lake Metropolitan Recreation District that, if the trees were removed, would better seal a large fire break along the western side of the town, giving the town and populated areas more protection.
Controlling “ignition sources” will be another priority in the updated plan, according to Long and Mintier. Both agree, multiple trees falling on power lines in several different locations during a windstorm is the likeliest scenario for the beginning of a large fire. One focus of the 2012 plan will be to “continue increasing the rights of way of power lines,” Long said, which will largely depend on private property owners since Mountain Parks Electric has treated most of its property below lines.
The planning process also serves to provide recommendations to homeowners about defensible space and understanding the fire environment that surrounds them.
During a scheduled June 16 community meeting, during which the finalized plan will be presented to district residents, Chief Long will roll out the “Ready, Set, Go!” program – a wealth of information about how homeowners can help themselves in preparation for a large fire.
“Community input is vital to the planning process,” said Mintier. “It takes everyone working together to produce the most effective CWPP possible.”
Compilation of the updated Community Wildfire Protection Plan is paid for with a $10,000 grant from the Bureau of Land Management, with in-kind contributions by Grand Lake Fire. The plan coverage area includes the Grand Lake Fire Protection District boundaries, and an “influence area” 1.5 extending miles beyond the district boundary.
Tonya Bina can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603