Community Agriculture Alliance: Wildfire risk reduction — critical watersheds and community assets

Routt County has been blessed with a relatively wet spring this year, the valley is a lush green and the threat of wildfire seems remote.

Recent smoke from fires in New Mexico reminded us that wildfire is a part of this beautiful place we live in, and that we need to plan for these events, both individually and as a community.

A previous article discussed the Home Ignition Zone (HIZ) and the actions that property owners can take to harden their homes from the threat of wildfire. Beyond the private property lines, public agencies such as the Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS) collaborated to strategically treat the landscape to mitigate for the hazard of wildfire to our community’s critical values ​​at risk.

Foremost among those values ​​are our priority watersheds. The latest effort within the Steamboat Springs WUI (Wildland Urban Interface) is currently being conducted around the Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District (MWWSD) Plant. This is called a fuel treatment project because it is treating woody vegetation that can fuel wildfire. The vegetation in this project includes Gambel oak, mountain shrubs, and aspen. The treatment consists of masticating (shredding) the vegetation in a way that creates a mosaic on the land. The goal is to change fire behavior by disrupting and reducing fuel continuity thus reducing fire intensity and providing firefighters a chance to protect these critical assets safely.

This treatment unit is part of a larger cooperative effort with partners that include MWWSD, the City of Steamboat Springs, the Catamount Water District (CMD), Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust (CCALT), Catamount Residents Owners Association (CROA), the US Forest Service (USFS) and Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW). The MWWSD Plant is located at the base of the Fish Creek Canyon and provides water to more than 90% of the Steamboat population. The Catamount Metro District provides water to Catamount residents while protecting critical wildlife habitat that includes adjoining USFS lands. This fuel treatment project will treat multiple ownerships on the eastern side of the Steamboat Springs WUI this summer, connecting treatments across the landscape and leveraging economies of scale.

Funding for this project is also a cooperative effort. Treatments on USFS lands are funded by the USFS through the Good Neighbor Agreement between the CSFS and the USFS. The Forest Restoration and Wildfire Risk Mitigation (FRWRM) Grants are state funds administered by the CSFS and contribute towards treatments on the two water districts. Other funding comes from CPW’s Habitat Partnership Program, CCALT, the City, water districts and other private funds.

The Colorado State Forest Service and the USFS have worked together with other private and public partners to accomplish over 1500 acres of fuel treatments in the past five years in the Steamboat WUI. Aligning partners, priorities and funding to do critical wildfire risk reduction work is key to moving toward making our communities better protected and adapted to fire at a scale that is meaningful. No treatment can remove the risk of wildfire, but by working together we can reduce the risk and adapt to living with fire.

John Twitchell is the Colorado State Forest Service Supervisory Forester, and Carolina Manriquez is the Northwest Area Forester.

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