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Proactive fuel breaks protect nearly $1B in homes, infrastructure during wildfire

Photo: Smoke rises from forest as helicopter drops water.
A helicopter drops water to cool off hot spots at the edge of a hazardous fuels treatment as the Buffalo Fire erupts on June 12, 2018. USDA photo.

COLORADO—When the Buffalo Fire sparked on the White River National Forest June 12, the flames stopped short of nearly 1,400 residences near Silverthorne, Colorado. But it wasn’t just the air support from firefighting helicopters and tankers or the more than 150 firefighters on scene that helped prevent a catastrophe in two small mountain subdivisions. Part of the success can also be attributed to proactive work over the last decade to build fuel breaks and reduce hazardous fuels in the wildland urban interface.

The fuel breaks were built as part of larger proactive forest management programs in Summit County and throughout the watershed around the Dillon Reservoir.

“The fuel breaks reduced the number of trees available to burn next to homes, gave firefighters safe spots to aggressively fight the fire and provided for effective fire-retardant drop zones,” said Bill Jackson, district ranger, White River National Forest. “Without the proactive forest treatments, we likely would have lost homes.”

Partnerships helped provide support for forest treatments. One such partnership is the From Forests to Faucets program, which is a forest management partnership that was created in 2010 between Denver Water and the Rocky Mountain Region. Since 2010, Denver Water and the Forest Service have invested approximately $33 million for treatments across 70,000 acres.

“Wildfires don’t know boundaries, so when it comes to forest management in Denver Water’s priority watersheds, we take an all hands, all lands approach,” said Christina Burri, watershed scientist at Denver Water. “By partnering with all the land owners, from federal, state, local and private, we’re able to better protect all of our interests from catastrophic wildfires and extend our investment and reach throughout the entire area.”

According to Jackson, “From Forests to Faucets helps us identify areas where we have common interests in limiting high intensity wildfires and improving forest and watershed health. The partnership helped us stretch our funds to treat more acres in Summit County.”

In this case, the agency was able to invest in 900 acres of hazardous fuels reduction projects next to the Wildernest and Mesa Cortina neighborhoods above Silverthorne—projects that saved an estimated $913 million worth of homes and infrastructure from the Buffalo Fire.

The Colorado State Forest Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service joined From Forests to Faucets in 2017 to allow forest managers to take even more of an “all hands, all lands” approach. Funds will go to forest treatments on non-federal and private lands as well as national forests.

Photo: Aerial shot of community near forest lands.
Fuel breaks on the White River National Forest in Colorado directly protect nearby homes during the Buffalo Fire in the community of Silverthorne. USDA photo.
Photo: A tanker sits in the center of a green clearing. Slurry (fire retardant) covers the foreground.
Tanker pilots were able to effectively drop fire retardant (pink foreground) as ground crews simultaneously used the fuel breaks as a safer place to engage the Buffalo Fire near Silverthorne, Colorado. USDA photo.