2,600 slash piles are burned in Chaffee County to improve forest health
The Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Rocky Mountain District Fire staff conducted prescribed burns in Chaffee County this winter, eliminating 2,600 piles of vegetation to complete fuels reduction projects near Mount Harvard Estates and at the base of Mount Shavano.
The agency is has concluded its burn activity in Chaffee County this winter, said Assistant Fire Management Officer John Markalunas in February.
Pile burns eliminate slash left behind from forest treatments, which remove beetle-killed timber and other fuels to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires. They also help create various stages of plant succession, which is critical to the health of fire-adapted forests.
The pile burns in Chaffee County removed leftover fuels from the two projects that treated a combined 250 acres of public lands.
Near the Mount Harvard Estates subdivision, about five miles north of Buena Vista, 1,250 hand-built piles among piñon pine, juniper and grass were burned. One thousand additional piles were burned in this area over the past few years.
The project reduced wildfire risk to nearby homes while improving mule deer habitat, Markalunas said. Excellent weather and ground conditions allowed the burn crew to address all the remaining piles in one day during the first week of January.
Six days were required to burn 1,350 piles among piñon pine, juniper, ponderosa pine and Douglas fir in the Mount Shavano area northwest of Poncha Springs. As much as three feet of ground snow and a steeper slope in the burn area lengthened the burn crew’s work timeframe. They finished on Feb. 4, 2021.
The Mount Shavano project mitigated 150 acres of public lands, where piñon pine had become overgrown underneath ponderosa pine stands, creating “ladder fuels” that can spread a ground fire into tall trees and lead to dangerous crown fires, Markalunas said.
The BLM plans to treat an additional 100 acres of forest near the Mount Shavano area this summer by beginning to remove and pile . Piles produced from that fuels reduction effort will likely be burned in 2023, depending on conditions, after the piles have a chance to cure.
Heavy fuel loads in local forests combine with recent warmer, drier temperatures and bigger wind events to create high wildfire risk in Chaffee County and more frequent and intense wildfire incidents. Vegetation removal helps implement Chaffee County’s Community Wildfire Protection Plan, which is designed to protect the county’s most important community assets from the effects of wildfire incidents.
Markalunas and additional BLM staff are members of the Envision Forest Health Council, a group of more than 30 forest health leaders working to implement the community wildfire plan. Their long-range goal is to treat up to 30,000 acres of forest by 2030 — an objective that would halve the risk severe wildfire poses to people, structures and natural resources in Chaffee County.