Wildfire prevention focus of brush thinning
Eby Creek Mesa subdivision north of Eagle is now an example of a pro-active stance against wildifres.
For the past few weeks, crews from the Bureau of Land Management have been thinning trees and brush on public land around the subdivision with the intent of keeping a catastrophic wildfire from blowing into the populated area. The project has involved both hand-thinning close to homes and, a bit farther out, taking down trees with a “hydro ax” – a mechanical device attached to the front of a tractor that looks sort of like a lawn mower on steroids.
The project originally sparked concern from both Eby Creek home owners and Town of Eagle officials, who feared the thinning would create unsightly zones of cleared brush around the subdivision. That didn’t happen.
Vern Brock, president of the Eby Creek Mesa Homeowners Association, said Bureau of Land Management Resource Specialist Dan Sokal was a “joy” to work with.
“We’d go out behind my house and I’d ask him, “Could we save that tree?’ and he’d say “sure’,” said Brock.
Individual trees were marked, so the hydro ax operator could skip them. Trees of varying sizes and ages were saved as well to maintain diversity in the plant population.
The result is a dramatic reduction in forest density in areas. At one point on the western edge of the subdivision, the tree density was taken from more than 300 trees per acre to just about 100.
Native grasses will grow into the thinned areas in future years, creating more forage for wildlife while reducing fuel levels on the public lands around the subdivision.
Sokal and his counterparts across the nation will likely get more experience working with homeowners associations and individual homeowners in the next few years. The new national fire plan requires public land managers to identify hazardous areas, then try to mitigate the danger on those lands.
Bureau of Land Management Resource Officer Brian Hopkins estimates that in the Glenwood management area alone, there is more than 1,700 miles of boundary between public and private lands. Overall, as much as 80 percent of Bureau of Land Management land in the Glenwood district is within one mile or less of private property.
Thinning projects like the one around Eby Creek Mesa aren’t cheap. The hydro ax work costs about $350 per acre. Hand thinning is more than $1,300 per acre.
In comparison, an average controlled burn costs $50 or less per acre. But burning in the interface zones usually isn’t practical, Sokal said.
Eagle County Commissioner Tom Stone, who recently toured the Eby Creek Mesa project, said the cost of prevention is less than the potential costs of fighting a fire and rehabilitating a burned area. Stone said he was impressed with the work done, and how that work might yield future benefits for other homeowners who live near public lands.
Locally, most of the private-public boundary involves Bureau of Land Management property, but the U.S. Forest Service is also bound by the national fire plan. Local Forest Service Fire Officer Phil Bowden said his agency is working on a couple of similar projects locally, at Fulford and in a couple of spots near Avon.
While the Forest Service is dealing with different types of vegetation in the higher elevations, Bowden said the objective is the same as it is near Eby Creek Mesa: cut back on fuel on the ground and reduce the chances a blaze will get into the tops of trees to create a fast-moving, hard-to-contain “crown fire.”
The Forest Service thinning will include a combination of mechanical and hand thinning.
“I think we’ll see more of that as long as there’s a funding stream,” said Bowden.
Sokal said the Eby Creek Mesa project was delayed by several months due to both fighting, then rehabilitating last summer’s Coal Seam Fire area around Glenwood Springs.
“That’s something we need to organize: how to deal with fires that happen and projects that reduce losses to homeowners,” said Bowden.
This story first appeared in the Eagle Valley Enterprise.