Breckenridge aims to douse concerns over tree-cutting |

Breckenridge aims to douse concerns over tree-cutting

Robert Allen
Summit County, CO Colorado
Summit Daily/Mark FoxMatt Benedict, wildfire coordinator with Red, White and Blue Fire Protection District, discusses forest health issues and what steps homeowners can take with regards to defensible space and removal of trees around their home Wednesday. Red, White and Blue and the Town of Breckenridge are working together on public education concerning fire mitigation and what can be done to make homes safer in the case of a wildland fire.

BRECKENRIDGE, Colorado ” Firefighters in Breckenridge are offering informal assessments to residents to determine how many trees would need to be removed under a controversial “defensible space” proposal.

Facing vocal public opposition, officials say the plan will address properties lot by lot, and clear-cutting isn’t considered an option under the plan to improve forest health and public safety by removing old, dying lodgepole pines and retaining younger, healthier species of trees.

Specialists with the Red, White and Blue Fire Protection District and town staff visited Breckenridge Town Councilman Rob Millisor’s home in the Highlands at Breckenridge on Wednesday.

District wildfire coordinator Matt Benedict ” who has a background in landscape architecture ” explained Millisor’s options in creating the 30-foot firebreak around his home.

In the front yard, Benedict pointed out a neck-high fir next to a few large lodgepole pines. He suggested the pines could be removed to give the fir space for growing.

“Leave the little fir in there ” that thing’s going to be great,” he said.

Though Benedict emphasized allowing the smaller, healthier trees to prosper, he also said it’s important to avoid “ladders” between the ground and tree canopies. Dead branches and loose brush can help fire spread from the ground, making it tougher to extinguish.

With a 30-foot firebreak, the homeowner is allowed to select trees they want to keep depending on a variety of options. Because Millisor’s driveway separates his home from the front yard, more trees could be left.

His “non-flammable” composite roof ” as opposed to wooden shingles ” also affords Millisor some additional flexibility, Benedict said.

Generally, small clumps of lodgepoles are allowed in the 30-foot firebreak provided their canopies are separate from the rest of the forest. Thinning of clumps is another measure used to help mitigate wildfire risk while preserving a barrier to neighbors and streets.

“We want trees within 30 feet,” Benedict said, “just not connected.”

Benedict estimated Millisor will need to have about 13 trees removed.

“That’s a lot less than I thought it was going to be,” Millisor said after the assessment. “It’s not an awful thing, really.”

He said he removed 17 lodgepoles last year from pine-beetle infestation.

South of Millisor’s residence, about three trees had branches hanging over the roof. Benedict said that while some trees may be saved as part of the foundation, this particular case would best be handled with cutting.

“We certainly don’t want these trees over-hanging your house,” he said.

Benedict said that with many of the town’s lodgepoles in excess of 80 years old, they absorb less water and become more of a fire danger. Meanwhile, what’s known as the “under-story” ” all the little 18-inch aspens and other specimen that under the hulking lodgepoles ” will gain ground once the aging lodgepoles are removed.

“The under-story is eventually going to take over our forest,” Benedict said.

Benedict said the age of the forest is just as much reason as the pine-beetle infestation to create defensible space.

“They’re showing every single sign of old age,” he said of the forest’s towering lodgepole pines.

As for multi-family complexes, the defensible-space proposal would treat many as one big unit, with the firebreak created around the perimeter.

Fire district spokeswoman Kim Scott said about 40 property owners have accepted the district’s offer for the informal assessments. A range from two to 20 trees have been suggested, per site, for removal. The average is about 10.

Council looking for satisfaction

Councilmen Jeffrey Bergeron and Dave Rossi took a ride with fire district members on Tuesday, visiting properties elsewhere.

Rossi said the flexibility and emphasis on saving trees and landscape, rather than just preventing fire, was reassuring.

“I felt a lot better about the scope of the work that they’re talking about, and it’s not necessarily as drastic as a lot of people have made it out to be,” he said.

However, Rossi said he remains concerned about the costs to residents and the time frame required for compliance.

He said he plans to attend some upcoming homeowners’ association meetings and continue the conversation.

“If they’re still outraged, I’m all for backing off,” he said, adding that people are right to question new legislation.

Town planner Jenn Cram said the latest draft of the ordinance ” to be discussed at the town’s March 10 work session ” is planned to have eliminated the one-year compliance requirement.

Instead, town residents as a whole, rather than zone-by-zone, would be required to comply within five years.

“We’ll be dropping all reference to the ‘priority areas’ map,” she said, adding that this will hopefully give property owners more time to deal with the expense of removal.

Rossi said the five-year requirement could help people feel less financial pressure, and that “a slower roll-out helps me become a little more comfortable.”

He said discussions such as the one at the last council work session are healthy for the community, to help ensure the town is doing its job.

“I think the challenging (dialogue) has been good for the community,” he said. “It keeps us honest.”

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