Basalt fire district takes offensive on Hidden Gems
BASALT – The Basalt fire department is going on the offensive to halt part of the Hidden Gems Wilderness proposal, fire district officials said Monday.
Director John Young said the department’s board voted Thursday night to spend up to $50,000 to prevent Basalt Mountain and part of lower Red Table Mountain from being designated wilderness.
The highest level of protection for federal lands would severely hamper the fire department’s efforts to fight wildland fires in the heavy timber of Basalt Mountain, according to Young and Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson. And if firefighters cannot attack a blaze when it is small, it could pose a significant risk to residents of Basalt and unincorporated Eagle County who live around its base.
“It could just have devastating effects on our citizenry,” Young said.
Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop is heading a coalition of conservation groups that are seeking wilderness designation for about 380,000 acres, primarily in Pitkin, Eagle, Summit and Garfield counties. A proposal for lands in Eagle and Summit has already been submitted to U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, whose district includes Eagle County. The conservationists are still working on a plan for Pitkin and Gunnison counties.
Young said the fire district only wants 12,570 acres on Basalt Mountain and a small part of the Red Table area that parallels Fryingpan Road removed from the Wilderness plan. It is not weighing in on the vast majority of the proposal, and is not opposing the wilderness designation for other lands in its sprawling district.
Bob Guion, another board of directors member and a fire officer, said the fire district won’t rule out possible litigation to prevent implementation of Hidden Gems if its concerns aren’t addressed.
Wilderness Workshop Executive Director Sloan Shoemaker said the boundary of the proposed Red Table Mountain Wilderness was pulled upslope by about 600 feet to make firefighting easier near the Ruedi Shores subdivision. “That’s an example of how we can work with them,” he said.
But Shoemaker said his earlier talks with the fire district board indicated compromise isn’t possible on Basalt Mountain.
“To address their concerns is to remove all of Basalt Mountain. That doesn’t seem reasonable to us,” he said.
The heart of the dispute is a difference of opinion over how to best protect Basalt and other developed areas from wildfire and its consequences. Thompson said he cannot stress how concerned he is about threats to public safety and property over access to Basalt Mountain.
The area’s storm track, combined with the thick timber and unhealthy forest of Basalt Mountain, make it susceptible to thunderstorms that roll up the valley. The department often responds to numerous lightning strikes up there each fire season. And it possesses specially built six-wheeled vehicles to travel tight, old logging and ranching roads to try to get firefighters on the scene while fires are small and manageable.
Use of mechanized equipment such as chainsaws in wilderness would require special permission by the forest supervisor. Use of motorized machinery such as bulldozers would require a higher level approval by the regional forester, the firefighters said.
Thompson insisted the extra layer of bureaucracy could literally be a matter of life or death because of the extra time the U.S. Forest Service would require to assess conditions.
He is also concerned that the Wilderness designation would eliminate the ability to thin trees on Basalt Mountain and create fire breaks.
Wilderness Workshop is equally insistent that legislation can be written to ease the fire district’s concerns. It has downplayed legislative hurdles to firefighting and fire prevention in newspaper articles and letters to the editor.
Thompson said Wilderness Workshop’s contentions that the firefighting concerns can easily be addressed make it difficult to work with them.
“They’re putting an untruthful spin on almost everything they put in the newspaper,” he said.
Shoemaker said fire science, as his coalition understands it, recommends creating defensible space around homes and structures. “You don’t protect communities with backcountry treatment,” he said. “You treat communities.
“Basalt is surrounded by fire. You can’t predict what direction it’s going to come from,” he later added.
Shoemaker wants the Basalt fire department and community at large to focus on educating homeowners on defensive steps, such as removing wood-shake shingles, removing vegetation that touches homes and thinning other vegetation. He directs people to http://www.fs.fed.us/rm/publications/titles/videos/protecting.html. Once there, scroll to the bottom to find a video demonstrating those techniques.
Guion said such steps suggested by Shoemaker have limited potential. Homeowners cannot be forced to follow common sense.
Shoemaker countered that educating the public on protecting their properties from wildfires might be the more difficult route, but more worthwhile. Firefighters shouldn’t be placed at risk because of some property owners’ selfishness in not creating defensible space, he said, and Wilderness-quality lands shouldn’t be subjected to ecological damage to ease the fire threat.
“We’re free to choose what to do and live with the consequences,” Shoemaker said. “Communities must mitigate together. The communities that don’t mitigate together, burn together.”
The fire district aims to sway policymakers and public opinion toward its direction in the debate. It is in the process of hiring a fire consultant to develop “fuel modeling” for Basalt Mountain – examining factors such as the tree and vegetation types, forest health and slopes to help determine wildland fire scenarios.
“There is a science behind this. It’s not just our imagination,” Young said.
The district hopes to have the scientific data in about one month. It will also conduct a search of its records to determine how many lightning strikes and other wildland fires it has responded to in the last decade or so on Basalt Mountain.
Once that data is available, the district aims to present findings to the public and educate constituents on “just what has got us so concerned,” Young said.
District officials will also seek meetings with the commissioners of Pitkin and Eagle counties as well as the Basalt Town Council to state its case. Perhaps most importantly, it will seek an audience with Polis, whom the conservation groups hope will sponsor a bill on Hidden Gems. The fire district has already written a letter stating its concerns to Polis. Now, it has to back that opinion with science, Young said.
“We want to develop our facts and say to Polis, ‘This is a major flaw in the Hidden Gems proposal,'” he said.
The public PR campaign could include polling, an official referendum of fire district residents, open houses, or all three.
Thompson said the board of directors’ decision to earmark $50,000 shows the importance of the issue.
“Fifty thousand dollars is a large amount of money for us right now,” he said, noting the department is maintaining its operating budget at the same level for the third year in a row.
He said the department shouldn’t be in the position of having to defend its firefighting capability because of a wilderness bill.
“They push us in a corner and make us fight our way out,” Thompson said.