Landowners work to reduce the risk of wildfire at the base of Mount Princeton
A new wildfire mitigation project is underway at the base of Mount Princeton southwest of Buena Vista.
The forested fuel break along Rodeo Road is designed to protect the community from a fast-moving wildfire that could start in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, where forests have been decimated by insect infestations, seen as large patches of grey and brown instead of green trees high up on the mountain.
“If a wildfire starts up there, it’s going to be a Decker fire level of intensity at minimum, and the prevailing winds would push it toward the community,” said forester Josh Kuehn with the Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS) Salida Field Office.
The Decker Fire burned for nearly six weeks in 2019 on Methodist Mountain south of Salida, destroying one home as hundreds were evacuated.
Kuehn said the 110-acre fuel break, cut by Alma-based P & A Forestry, will result from selectively removing trees to reduce the intensity of a potential canopy fire. Canopy fires spread quickly from one treetop to the next. The most intense type of wildfire, they often are the most difficult to contain, especially in high winds.
The fuel break provides a chance for a fire to “move to the ground,” Kuehn said, and slow down with the help of first responders. Trees are thinned so the tops are no longer touching each other. The work started in April on the Maxwell Park State Land Board section on Rodeo Road, and continues in May on the Frontier Ranch, a camp operated by Young Life.
At the same time, homeowners in Pine Grove Estates, Whispering Pines, The Journey’s End and other area neighbors are working with Colorado Firecamp and the Southwest Conservation Corps to allow the thinning of trees on residential lots, which compliments the fuel break and creates a larger area of wildfire resiliency at the base of the 14,000-foot mountain.
“Our work focuses on treating from the front door to the forest,” said Kent Maxwell, Colorado Firecamp’s fire & forestry coordinator. “We often start at the home ignition zone, extending out with roadside thinning that connects with larger scale treatments on public lands.”
Dozens of landowners in the area have removed brush and limbed tree branches since 2020 by participating in Chaffee Chips, a slash haul away service, and in Chaffee Treats, a program that connects private property treatments in priority areas as defined in the Chaffee County Community Wildfire Protection Plan.
The fuel break is funded by a CSFS State Fire Assistance Grant with matching funds from Chaffee Common Ground. It is slated for completion in July. Work on individual lots will continue throughout the year, as students hone their sawyer skills through Colorado Firecamp’s wildland firefighting classes.
The Mount Princeton project is among several large fuel breaks underway or completed since the community wildfire plan was updated in 2020. Additional projects are located along the Arkansas River north of Buena Vista, in the North Cottonwood Creek drainage northwest of Buena Vista, on Coyote Valley Road west of Nathrop, on the Methodist Front south of Salida and Poncha Springs, and on Poncha Pass.
More than 5,000 acres have been thinned since 2020. For more information about wildfire mitigation across the county, review the Forest Health Council’s Annual Report to the Community.