Forest Service plans prescribed fire in Aspen’s Hunter Creek Valley

While fires are raging in the West, fire management officials are confident in conditions in Aspen high country

Jim Genung, prescribed fire and fuels specalist with the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, points out work within a 162-acre section of Basalt Mountain in 2014.
Scott Condon/The Aspen Times archive

A federal firefighting team believes conditions will be ripe Friday for a prescribed burn on up to 1,200 acres in the backyard of Aspen while acknowledging nerves are a bit on edge for some members of the public because of wildfires raging throughout the West.

The Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit is teaming with the Aspen Fire Department on the prescribed fire in Hunter Creek Valley, 2 miles northeast of Aspen and even closer to the multimillion-dollar mansions on Red Mountain.

Jim Genung, a fire management officer with the unit, said Thursday conditions are ideal in the Roaring Fork Valley for intentionally setting a fire. That’s in contrast to conditions on Colorado’s Front Range, where there have already been several fires this late winter and spring.

“It’s a completely different ballgame” between the two areas, he said.

In the Hunter Creek Valley, a snowpack that was close to average this winter is melting out and supplying the water needed to turn grass green. Sensors at weather stations show favorable moisture content in both “dead fuels” — the fallen and standing dead trees and branches — as well as in the living vegetation, Genung said. Field visits have verified favorable conditions, he said.

Above about 9,000 feet in elevation, grasses and vegetation is still “cured out” and more susceptible to fire, according to Genung. Snowpack still exists in places such as Van Horn Park and Four Corners, so a natural barrier exists to halt the movement of flames.

The Upper Colorado unit has responded to about five fires in the western half of the White River National Forest so far this spring, but all remained small and were easy to put out because of the high moisture content in fuels, Genung said.

Subalpine fir trees and aspens dominate the landscape in Hunter Creek Valley along with shrubs and grasses. The trees and vegetation in the Front Range forests are “totally different” with Ponderosa pine being a dominant species, he said. Parts of the Front Range received next to no precipitation for the entire month of April, so conditions are tinder dry there.

“It’s hard to get the message out: we’re not that place,” Genung said.

Roaring Fork Valley residents have received repeated warnings from local fire departments and emergency management officials to prepare for wildfires, so that’s understandably made some people wary of intentionally set fires. Winds have raged for a prolonged time this spring and raised concerns about errant sparks.

But Genung noted there have been no red flag warnings issues in the Aspen area this spring. The National Weather Service issues such a warning when there are hot, dry conditions, low humidity and winds.

The fire team wants light winds to help spread the fire in the target area and blow smoke away from Aspen toward the Continental Divide. If it is windier then expected, the prescribed fire will be delayed. Genung said a team will be in the Hunter Creek Valley early Friday to set a trial fire to test conditions. Team leaders will also consult with a special “fire meteorologist” with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction for a pinpoint forecast for the day.

“If we get out there and we don’t like it, we’ll back off,” Genung said.

If it goes as planned, small incendiary devices will be dropped in the target area from a helicopter. Additional fires will be set on the ground. The goal will be to set a surface fire on 50% to 70% of the lands in the 1,200-acre target area, Genung said.

He estimated there would be 40 firefighters on the ground between the Upper Colorado unit and Aspen Fire Department. They will use barriers such as roads as firebreaks.

“We’ll be on scene until there’s no smoke or heat in there,” Genung said.

A prescribed fire burns in May 2016 on a hillside above Hunter Creek Valley. Officials said the burn achieved its objectives: regenerate fresh growth and enhance habitat for deer and elk, and reduce the buildup of fuels.
Jamie Werner-ACES/courtesy photo

The fire will target the same lands treated in a prescribed fire six years ago. Genung said prescribed fire is best utilized as a tool when it targets the same general area three times over 15 to 20 years. Natural fires used to sweep through such areas regularly until settlement and suppression started in the 1870s.

“These places have missed out on fire,” Genung said.

The fire will result in better habitat for wildlife. Elk in particularly thrive on the new grass growth in burn areas, Genung said. In addition, it will remove additional fuels from potential wildfires.

Genung said 162 acres treated on Basalt Mountain helped the firefighting effort when the Lake Christine Fire broke out in July 2018. Untamed flames in untreated areas prevented hand crews from effective firefighting efforts on Basalt Mountain. They were able to make a stand when they encountered smaller flames within the old treatment area, according to Genung.

He acknowledged prescribed fire isn’t risk-free. Federal policy on prescribed fires is under scrutiny after one of multiple fires currently burning in New Mexico started after “erratic” afternoon winds whipped an intentionally set fire out of control.

Genung said more than 99% of prescribed burns on national forest occur with no problem. Fire is going to occur in many areas of Western forests one way or another, he said. He believes it would be best to undertake them in a planned way when fuel moisture levels and snowpack can be used to advantage rather than battling wildfires in July and later in the year.

He likened the landscape to a campfire with too much wood on it. A prescribed fire removes some of that wood.

“Right now, there’s probably too many logs on the fire,” Genung said.

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