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Bennet says Silverthorne dodged a wildfire bullet

Author: David O. Williams - August 8, 2018 - Updated: August 23, 2018

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Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet surveys the Buffalo Fire burn area above Silverthorne on Aug. 7 with Dillon Ranger District deputy district ranger Adam Bianchi. (USFS photo)

SILVERTHORNE — Looking west to California, where a wildfire just exploded into the largest in state history, Colorado forest officials and politicians had a “there but for the grace of God (and a lot of hard work)” moment on the flanks of Buffalo Mountain above Silverthorne Tuesday.

Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet Tuesday toured a 90-acre burn area on U.S. Forest Service land adjacent to two Silverthorne neighborhoods that very nearly erupted into a catastrophic loss of property on June 12 before crews using slurry bombers, helicopters and boots on the ground beat back the flames. Nearly 1,400 homes were evacuated, but no properties were lost.

Bennet credits 900 acres of defensible space — basically tree clearing — that Forest Service officials completed in 2012 in conjunction with Summit County, Denver Water and the Colorado State Forest Service. The project cost more than $1 million and did not come without pushback.

“I was here in 2012, and this was very controversial to create this kind of firebreak, and you can see why,” Bennet said. “The community is used to living with trees right next to it, but there’s a safe way of doing it. This demonstrates that, and I hope everybody in this state and everybody in the West can see the benefits of this.”

Local and federal officials estimate that by spending $1 million on creating defensible space by clearing trees — an area where firefighters can safely work to combat a wildfire — more than $1 billion in property was saved in Silverthorne during the mid-June Buffalo Fire.

“The Buffalo Fire may be the ultimate example of what our goals are when we do those fuel-reduction projects and those fuel breaks,” White River National Forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said. “Sometimes they don’t work out perfectly, but this one did, and the importance can’t be underestimated.”

Over the last 10 years, more than 12,000 acres of national forest have been treated by thinning and clearing in the Dillon Ranger District at a cost of more than $12 million. About a quarter of that cost has been picked up by Denver Water through the Forests to Faucets partnership.

That’s because wildfires devastate watersheds, causing pollution and erosion, and Summit County is one of the most critical sources of water for the Denver metro area. Summit County also has contributed funding as Forest Service mitigation resources dwindled in recent years.

“For nine years we’ve been fighting this thing called fire borrowing, which is your Forest Service having to pay for the work that it does fighting fires, and last year was the first year in which over 50 percent of the budget went to fighting fires,” Bennet said.

“We finally ended that fire borrowing this year (with the Omnibus spending bill), which means that the Forest Service is going to be able to spend a lot more money doing this kind of stuff to mitigate the dangers of fires than fighting it on the back end when often it’s a lost cause,” he added.

Bennet hopes the shift in how firefighting on public lands is paid for, plus changes Congress is working on in the farm bill — based on the Denver Water partnership — will make it easier for different stakeholders to contract to work together on fuel-reduction projects.

“The forests are in much worse shape today than they were a decade ago — part of that’s because of beetle kill, part of that’s because of climate change — but a lot of that is because the Forest Service has not had the resources that it needs to be able to do the work that they do so well,” Bennet said.

That’s now changing, Fitzwilliams acknowledged, and so are the attitudes of people living in what’s known as the wildland-urban interface.

“The building and the development in the urban interface in these communities has exploded over the past two decades, and these are the responsibilities of the people who get to have this beautiful national forest, public land in their backyard,” said Fitzwilliams, adding that in many parts of the White River National Forest the timber industry can’t ride to the rescue.

“In this case, and most of Summit County, those logs are not very valuable. They’re small diameter, dead lodgepole pine,” Fitzwilliams said. “Fortunately, we have a biomass plant (in Gypsum) so we actually have a place to use that product (for energy), because if we didn’t have that biomass plant, we’d be making a lot of piles and burning it in the wintertime.”

Asked about President Donald Trump’s tweets earlier this week blaming California’s environmental policies for the fatal and destructive fires still raging in that state, Bennet blasted the president for his opinion, debunked by most policy experts on the ground.

“I don’t understand why he wants to use his Twitter account as a perpetual source of disinformation, especially when peoples’ property and lives are at stake,” said Bennet, a Democrat. “We’d be a lot better off if he’d put his phone away and did the work of governing.”

David O. Williams

David O. Williams

David O. Williams is a freelance writer based in Eagle-Vail, Colo. His work has appeared in more than 50 online and print publications in Colorado and around the nation.