When the Buffalo Fire sparked on the White River National Forest on June 12, the flames stopped short of nearly 1,400 residences near Silverthorne. But, it wasn’t just the support from firefighting helicopters, air tankers and 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 where homes meet wild lands — the wildland urban interface.
“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, USDA Forest Service. “Without the proactive forest treatments, we likely would have lost homes.”
These fuel breaks are 300 to 500-foot wide open spaces developed between the forest and subdivisions where lodgepole pine trees that had been killed by the mountain pine beetle once stood — ripe for ignition.
The fuel breaks were built as part of larger proactive forest management programs in Summit County and throughout the watershed around the Dillon Reservoir.
“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.”
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 of the USDA Forest Service.
“From Forests to Faucets helps us identify areas where we have common interests in limiting high intensity wildfires and improving forest and watershed health,” Jackson said. “The partnership helped us stretch our funds to treat more acres in Summit County.” Watch a video about the partnership.
In this case, the USDA Forest Service was able to invest in 900 acres of hazardous fuel reduction projects next to the Wildernest and Mesa Cortina neighborhoods above Silverthorne. The projects saved an estimated $913 million worth of homes and infrastructure from the Buffalo Fire.
Since 2010, Denver Water and the USDA Forest Service have invested approximately $33 million for forest treatments across 48,000 acres through the partnership. The partners will invest another $33 million through 2021.
An example of forest treatments funded through the From Forests to Faucets partnership can be seen along a popular stretch of the Colorado Trail in Jefferson County near Buffalo Creek which is in Denver Water’s collection area.
Visitors will see large stacks of downed timber, cleared spaces and piles of wood as part of the forest restoration project done in 2017 and 2018.
“The goal of our treatments isn’t to stop fire, it’s to prevent large catastrophic wildfires,” said Erin Connelly, supervisor, Pike/San Isabel National Forest, USDA Forest Service. “Fires are an important part of the ecosystem, so we want to treat the forests to promote smaller, beneficial fires and prevent large ones that have devastating impacts on communities, wildlife, recreation and water supply.”
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 as funds will go to forest treatments on non-federal and private lands as well as national forests.
“From Forests to Faucets is a collaborative approach to keep our forests and watersheds healthy,” said Burri. “Many communities and trails are surrounded by wilderness and our drinking water passes through mountains and trees, so it’s critical to take care of our forests.”
Sixty million Americans rely on drinking water that originates on national forest and grasslands which is why the USDA Forest Service is raising awareness about the role forests play in water supply during the month of June.