Mesa County case study
Improve Fire Prevention and Suppression Reduce Hazardous FuelsRestore Fire Adapted Ecosystems Promote Community AssistanceSummary



WGA Goal - Reduce Hazardous Fuels

Actions to meet goal

  • Reduce acres at risk
  • Ensure communities most at risk receive priority
  • Expand and improve integration of hazardous fuels management program
  • Incorporate public health and environmental quality considerations in fire management activities
  • Develop smoke management plans in conjunction with prescribed fire planning
  • Address fire-prone ecosystem problems
  • Maintain areas improved by fuels treatment
  • Conduct and utilize research to support the reduction of hazardous fuels in WUI communities
  • Factor in local environmental conditions during fuels treatment planning

Fuels Reduction on Public Lands

United States Forest Service Hazardous Fuel Reduction

GMNF pictureThe USFS treated 670 acres in 2001, 20 acres in 2002 and 10 acres in 2003. They started planning and preparation work for the 17,000 acre North Uncompahgre Project and the 3,000 acre Dominguez Project in 2003. The very small spring burn window makes some years difficult to implement prescription burns. Smoke management regulations have limited the amount of burning when a window is present. Overall the budget dictates how many mechanical acres can be treated.

Bureau of Land Management Hazardous Fuel Reduction

BLM is focusing their work in areas they see as particularly high risk in Mesa County-these include Glade Park, Unaweep Canyon and Plateau Valley-almost all of which is in pinyon juniper woodland and sage grass. They are working toward a five-year action plan, which is still underdevelopment. The areas chosen for work are intermixed with private, BLM and USFS lands and were identified through a risk assessment process. BLM does not used prescribed fire in these WUI areas but has a Fire Ecologist that is in charge of prescription fire and wildland fire use for fuel treatment outside the WUI areas, mostly in the mountain shrub vegetation type. Unaweep Canyon has treatments in progress now. They have identified many sites through their risk assessment work and they are getting ramped up to address them. WUI projects are evaluated based on WUI conditions, the fire management plan zone, fire ecology, project access and resource consideration. Local support and partnerships with matching funds, adjacent planned efforts, multi-agency partnerships and the likelihood of meeting project deadlines also is taken into consideration.

Smoke management has been one of the biggest challenges for the USFS and BLM. They have had to convert some projects from prescribed fire to mechanical treatment because some permitting requirements have been difficult to meet, like weather monitoring. While mechanical prescriptions are more expensive, they end up having much more control. "You can get it done and also you have a lot less risk" said BLM's Fire management Officer Tim Foley. It is increasingly difficult and expensive to get a "burn window" that will meet weather and fuel moisture prescriptions as well as the smoke management limitations (not to mention the availability of qualified personnel). Often prescribed and managed fire prescriptions will be met at the same time fire suppression activities are occurring. The "challenge" of explaining to the public why you are lighting and allowing some fires to burn while suppressing others is one federal land managers are "treading lightly" with.

In FY2002, BLM had four WUI projects scheduled for implementation and 2,724 acres were treated. 2,560 acres were planned for treatment and 1,232 were treated. 500 acres of the proposed treatment were for prescribed burns that could not take place. In FY2002 there were nine hazardous fuels projects or non-WUI projects and 3,638 acres were treated. 5,210 acres were planned for treatment and 1,819 acres were treated successfully. In FY 2003 4,190 acres were treated mechanically in both WUI and non-WUI settings. Three WUI projects were scheduled for FY03 and two were carried over for a total treatment of 1,657 acres. 727 out of the 1,328 acres not treated in FY02 were treated in FY03. An additional 750 acres of new projects were planned and completed in FY2003. In FY 2003 there were two non-WUI projects scheduled for implementation and seven carryovers. 3,856 acres of carry over projects were completed along with 300 additional new acres.

The BLM hired "fuels planning teams" to keep project progressing through the NEPA process as well as categorical exclusions. The success they have had in treatment is due in part to the interest by non-fire resource specialists in seeing vegetative treatments done that have benefits for fuel reduction and their functional resource specialty. This has kept projects in the pipeline and involved more people with the workload.

BLM ends up using contractors when they need heavy equipment. For instance if the work involves a Hydroaxe or roller chopper, then they will contract out. Contract request for quotes (CRQ) are sent to a list of qualified operators. Contracts are awarded to the low bid. Most of the awards are to relatively local contractors in south Fork, Grand Junction, Silt, Paonia, Delta, and Norwood. There are only two mechanical operators in Mesa County that consistently present competitive bids.

BLM is starting to do maintenance treatment on areas that were treated in the past, primarily with prescription fire. They have just hired a fire use module, between 5-8 people, that will be shared all around western Colorado, but based in Grand Junction. They will be able to ramp up their treatment work because this group will be utilized to do prescription burning and wildland fire use for treatments.

CSFS Prescribed Burning

While the largest prescribed burns CSFS has managed have been on the CSFS-Grand Junction district it has not recently done a lot of prescribed burning because of the risk involved and the recent development of cost-effective mechanical treatment options (e.g. the Hydroaxe). Because of unresolved liability issues and funding the Grand Junction District of the CSFS recommends to counties against allowing natural ignition burns to cross from federal land into private or state owned lands and vice versa. "Some people like to talk about the cost-effectiveness of prescribed burns, but I guess I've seen it both ways. It can be cost-effective if everything goes right, but it can be not very cost effective if things go wrong". Moreover, prescribed fire in the WUI interface is difficult to carry out. Mechanical treatments are easier because they can be done at any time of the year and actually cost less money per acre, especially if you count all the false starts on a prescribed fire, the contingency planning and the smoke management plan. For instance, the projected costs for the prescribed fire that caused the Cerro Grande Fire in Los Alamos in 2000 was $324 per acre for a 100-acre area. It was this prescribed fire that escaped, burning 235 homes and 47, 650 acres and costing many millions of dollars in damages. Due to their vegetative types, Mesa County can do mechanical fuels treatment for less than $324 per acre.

Colorado State Forest Service Wildfire Suppression Role

CSFS fuels projects map

Colorado State Forest Service assists the county sheriff in his role as fire warden for the county. CSFS assists by providing fire training, equipment, technical assistance, funding, facilitates interagency mutual aid agreements and annual operating plans. CSFS maintains sixteen fire trucks within the Grand Junction CSFS district, and 140 statewide, that they assign for fire suppression. These engines are assigned to fire cooperators (mainly fire departments and sheriffs), and are specifically designed for wildland firefighting. These engines fight fire not only in their assigned area, but statewide and nationwide. CSFS main strategy is to get landowners to participate in their own planning, mitigation and rescue. This means the landowner must buy into the belief that there is a problem and this is their biggest challenge.

Wildfire Hazard Reviews and Wildfire Hazard Area Mapping

Mesa County operates under Wildfire Hazard Planning Standards, which were adopted in 1999. CSFS is the designated state agency by HB 1041 to review wildfire hazards upon request by the county. Mesa County has regulations that call for defensible space on new subdivisions. However, CSFS reviews only one or two of these plans a year because not much subdivision development is happening in wildfire hazard areas. During 1997-1999, Mesa County contracted with CSFS to do wildfire hazard mapping. In theory this should be keeping subdivision development out of the more hazardous areas, but this is not happening in practice. In the cases where they do have someone building in a wildfire hazardous area, the CSFS stipulates what must be done for mitigation. Houses on 35-acre parcels or larger are exempt from these policies. In Mesa County and statewide there is a disconnect between county planning regulations for wildfire hazard reduction and the enforcement, and especially the maintenance of fuels reductions. Recently State Farm Insurance has issued a warning to those they insure in the urban interface in Colorado. They will have 3 years to do fuels mitigation to the CSFS 6.302 standard or face losing their coverage. It is this kind of incentive that is most effective in getting fuels reduction done.

CSFS Wildfire Mitigation Specialist

Pete Blume was hired by the CSFS under a grant from the BLM to promote wildfire hazard mitigation efforts on private lands in the WUI through information, grants and coordination of adjacent federal lands fuel treatments. Blume works primarily through fire protection districts, homeowners associations and contact and coordination with federal, state and county government. Blume's job is more as a coordinator of cross-boundary, on-the-ground wildfire mitigation than just education and outreach. Blume will work both sides of the fence, literally and figuratively, and represent both the federal need and the State Forestry private lands need. He will talk to the homeowners about CSFS's 50-50 cost-share grant for wildfire mitigation defensible space work. Blume had been housed at BLM Headquarters in Grand Junction, where he used to serve as the area FMO. As of 2004, Blume has moved to the USFS office in Grand Junction.

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Copyright©2003 Toddi A. Steelman and North Carolina State University

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