Wildlife agency aims to reduce fire risk at Basalt shooting range
The Aspen Times
Two years after the devastating Lake Christine Fire, Colorado Parks and Wildlife says it is taking multiple steps to ease the fire threat at the Basalt shooting range.
The fire broke out July 3, 2018, when a user of the rifle range was shooting prohibited tracer ammunition, during a drought, no less. The fire consumed three homes, forced the evacuation of hundreds more and ended up charring more than 12,500 acres of national forest and private lands. The fire cost an estimated $30 million to extinguish.
CPW Area Wildlife Manager Matt Yamashita said this week that from a fire perspective, there has been a “significant improvement” at the shooting range over the past two years and more improvements are coming.
Roughly 75 feet up the slope and behind the rifle, pistol and shotgun ranges, CPW crews in early June bulldozed a 14-foot wide, half-mile long cut. Instead of an ugly scar, it will eventually be an irrigated greenbelt that will be an important line of defense for containing fire, should another break out, Yamashita said.
CPW is pursuing recommendations of a task force that convened last year as part of the aftermath of the fire. One of the primary recommendations of the task force, on advice from Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Chief Scott Thompson, was to establish the firebreak with an irrigated greenbelt above the shooting range.
An old road that was cut decades ago to put up power powers was utilized for the greenbelt. The cut will be widened to 25 feet and a water source will be tapped so that fire-resistant vegetation will grow on the cut.
“That is a project that will be phased,” Yamashita said. “It will take three years.”
CPW is working with the Colorado State Forest Service to select what low-lying brush and grasses to plant. Once completed, the vegetated road cut will catch blowing embers and trap them until they go out, Yamashita said. Embers simply blow past paved or dirt surfaces and present a threat of spreading fire, he said.
CPW is assessing options for providing water along the future greenbelt. Options include a costly prospect of pumping it uphill from lower sources, tapping into the town of Basalt’s water supply or tapping into springs that CPW has water rights to for the irrigation of hay fields elsewhere in the Basalt State Wildlife Area.
Thompson said CPW has “absolutely” made progress at reducing the fire risk at the shooting range.
“They’ve really eliminated the vegetation down low,” he said. “We’ve got a barrier with that road if (a fire) does start.”
The vegetation on the fire road/greenbelt will be low enough that a small fire truck will be able to drive on it. That will prevent firefighters having to hike up the slope in a future incident.
The road will be gated and closed to public use, Thompson said.
Another boost to safety at the state-owned and operated shooting range is an enhanced surveillance system. The $30,000 system includes nine cameras installed to scrutinize the shooting ranges, parking areas and common areas. The digital images are stored at a central database, going back about one month.
CPW used the system to check a recent complaint about illegal shooting at the range close to 10 p.m., when the facility is closed. The agency established that the shooting wasn’t coming from the range but somewhere outside of it, Yamashita said.
The shooting range has been a divisive facility, particularly since the fire. Some Basalt residents are determined to remove it as a safety hazard and nuisance because of the noise. But hundreds of target shooters from throughout the region rally in support of the range anytime public meetings are held about its fate.
A source of frustration for some people is CPW has made funds available for new shooting ranges around the state while critics are calling for increased funded to make the Basalt site safer after the 2018 calamity.
Yamashita said there are different pots funding projects. In addition, there is a lot of competition for available money. CPW has allocated about $500,000 to the Basalt shooting range since 2012 for safety improvements and noise reduction.
“We’re definitely making progress,” he said.
Yamashita said an overlooked factor is people will find a place for target shooting. They will either be scattered out among public lands or they will be concentrated in a place where safety measures and a level of monitoring is undertaken.
CPW has also increased its human oversight of the range.
“When fire restrictions are in place, there is somebody here daily,” Yamashita said from the site this week.
Regular patrols will be coordinated among the district wildlife manager, a land technician and a part-time employee, he said.
CPW has also ordered a 10,000-gallon water tank with a “pump and spray rig,” Yamashita said. That water supply can be tapped from initial responders should a fire break out.
The shooting range adopted new hours starting July 1. The range will be closed every Wednesday, year-round.
Between March 15 and Oct. 15, the range will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
During winter months, it will be open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day with the exception of the Wednesday closure.
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A Garfield County commissioner angrily denounced Pitkin County and state transportation officials Friday as “disrespectful, arrogant, gutless and selfish” for closing Independence Pass earlier this week.