Inmates take a bite out of vegetation |

Inmates take a bite out of vegetation

Post Independent/Kelley CoxJeremy Cummings, of the Rifle Correctional Center helps to clear branches and brush near Veltus Park in Glenwood Wednesday.

Wildfire may be far from the minds of Glenwood Springs residents this week, with winter officially starting and city crews still cleaning up from a heavy snowstorm.At Veltus Park, however, Rifle Correctional Center inmates were busy Wednesday doing work that will make residents safer next summer.Several members of SWIFT – the State Wildland Inmate Fire Team – took chain saws to oak brush and serviceberry bushes, thinning out the park’s vegetation to reduce the wildfire threat. This fall, they also did similar work in the Three-Mile Creek area, between Midland Avenue and the Roaring Fork River.On Wednesday, they focused partly on opening up a fire break in a creek gully that runs through Veltus to the river.The work is a welcome change of pace for the SWIFT team, which during the summer sweats it out fighting fires rather than trying to prevent them.”It keeps us busy,” said inmate Ryon Olthoff, taking a break from operating a chain saw. “It’s better to be prepared and get everything thinned out now than have a fire come up and devastate everything this summer.”Sometimes the change in a woodland’s appearance that comes with thinning isn’t entirely welcome. Some Three-Mile residents raised concerns about the thinning there. Pete Davis, a state Department of Corrections supervisor who has been heading the Glenwood work, said they didn’t like the loss of privacy that came with reducing the vegetative screening between them and their neighbors.

“Well, if there’s a fire we’re protecting their house too,” he said.Al Laurette, the city’s parks and recreation superintendent, said a fire in the thick vegetation in the Three-Mile area would have been hard to put out before the project and could have resulted in a “serious situation” for nearby homes. At Veltus, another concern is its public nature as a park, which raises the risk of a fire being started from causes such as a burning cigarette butt. Mitigation work at the park should help protect a mobile home park to the south.Glenwood’s recent history of wildfires has served as an impetus for city officials to look at where they can do thinning. The Storm King Fire of 1994 stopped at the western edge of town, and while claiming no homes, it killed 14 firefighters; one of the deadliest disasters in decades involving U.S. wildland firefighters. In 2002, the Coal Seam Fire claimed some 30 homes in the Glenwood area, although it caused no deaths or injuries.Laurette said mitigation work is dictated by availability of funding, and the city is likely to try to do more of it. The Three-Mile project was funded by the Colorado State Forest Service. The city parks and fire departments are splitting the cost of the Veltus Park work.Laurette said people may be used to seeing dense vegetation at Veltus, but it isn’t for the best. Part of the work involves eliminating low-lying brush that serves as “ladder fuels,” by which fire can spread to tree canopies. Davis said that would help protect the park’s more mature trees from being lost in a fire.He said he’s heard some praise and no criticism over the Veltus work.”We’ve had a few people come in (and say), ‘Now this is nice, we can see the river now.'”

On Wednesday, crew members wearing black sweatshirts emblazoned with the orange SWIFT logo cut branches and ran them through a chipper, and shouldered logs and piled them up to be removed. They also enjoyed working in sunnier weather after the cold and snow of recent days.”It’s not bad,” Olthoff said of the winter weather. “Once you get moving, you stay pretty warm. The feet get a little chilly. It’s all part of the gig.”For Olthoff, the chance to work with SWIFT is well worth enduring the summer heat and winter cold.”I love it. I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” said Olthoff, who has been on the team since February. “It helps the time fly by.”It also could shorten the time he spends in prison. Olthoff has watched others on the team get paroled or moved from prison into community work release programs. He hopes his time on SWIFT might help him win parole as early as this summer, despite a sentence that could keep him in prison up to 2012. He said he’s considering going into tree care service or other chain saw work once he’s released.Davis said the team is more than 3 years old.”This is the first year we’ve been keeping busy through the winter. It’s been pretty nice,” he said.

SWIFT also helped do fire mitigation work up Mitchell Creek, where the Coal Seam fire burned several homes. In addition, it has removed tamarisk, an invasive and flammable riverbank plant, in Eagle County, and is scheduled to do similar work in the Mamm Creek area near the Garfield County Regional Airport.Meanwhile, residents in the Glenwood Springs Fire Department’s district continue to be able to tap into help in doing fire mitigation on their own properties. Fire marshal Ron Biggers said they can apply for grants covering half the costs of qualifying vegetation thinning projects aimed at creating a defensible space around their homes. That sometimes will mean a savings of more than $1,200, he said.Probably more than 30 homeowners have taken advantage of the financial assistance in the last three years. By year’s end, it will have helped fund projects worth a total of about $50,000.Biggers said anyone wanting to plan a project for next year would be wise to start scheduling the work with a contractor and seeking financial assistance now, before the busy season for fire mitigation.”Otherwise you might be waiting till the fall” to get the work done, he said.Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext.

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