Common Ground supports creation of community fuel breaks

Forest mitigation work creates areas to fight wildfires, support evac and improve wildlife habitat

Chaffee County’s Community Wildfire Protection Plan identifies top treatment priority areas where community fuel breaks are being created.

Common Ground investments in wildfire mitigation and forest restoration projects will create multiple community fuel breaks in Chaffee County in the coming years.

The projects are designed by the Envision Forest Health Council, a group of more than 40 community leaders working to implement the Chaffee County Community Wildfire Protection Plan. The plan was approved in February 2020 to increase the past rate of treatments and reduce overall community risk of the effects of a wildfire.

All of the projects are located in top treatment priority areas identified in the plan, which uses computer modeling to map wildfire risk and identify the right areas to treat for the highest cost efficiency and community benefit.

Increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires across the state is due dense, unhealthy forests and drought coupled with warmer temperatures and larger wind events. At the same time, population growth and development in the wildland-urban interface creates a critical public health and safety problem, not just a forest health issue. The Forest Health Council is working to treat up to 30,000 acres of both public and private lands by 2030, to halve the risk wildfire poses to the community. 

The Methodist Front project connects to the 2019 Decker Fire burn area and extends across the mountain to the west and up to Poncha Pass, an important ingress and egress route for the entire county.

The largest project, a 10-mile-long area of fuel breaks in the foothills of Methodist Mountain, will protect the Salida and Poncha Springs communities of 7,000 people. The Methodist Front project connects to the 2019 Decker Fire burn area and extends across the mountain to the west and up to Poncha Pass, an important ingress and egress route for the entire county. Work on the fuel break began in 2020 and is ongoing.

Another fuel break is located in the center of the county across from Hecla Junction. The 2-mile-long break was created along Coyote Valley Road to provide safer firefighter access in the event of a wildfire in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness to the west. It also improves egress for residents and visitors and protects structures in the surrounding area. The fuel break ties into future and previously completed mitigation work by the U.S. Forest Service on more than 6,000 acres to the west. Work on private property was managed by the Colorado State Forest Service.

Both projects benefit wildlife because thinning the dense forest over-story improves habitat by allowing sunlight to reach the ground so that new shrubs and grasses grow, thereby providing better cover and forage for animals.

A Southwest Conservation Corp sawyer removes fuel in the Methodist Front community fuel break.

Methodist Front addresses threat to municipal water supplies as well as the Gold Medal Trout Waters of the Arkansas River, by reducing the likely intensity of a fire in the forests above the “Little Ark” river. The water system includes two important ditches that serve wetlands and agricultural operations in the valley and beyond. Power lines and communications sites located in the Methodist foothills and on Poncha Pass also are protected.

Common Ground invested roughly $700,000 over three years in these two projects, which include matching and in-kind funding from local, state and federal sources.

Landowners in both project areas are encouraged to advance the number of acres treated by participating in Chaffee Chips, a Common Ground-supported program that coordinates neighborhood slash removal and chipping services, and Chaffee Treats, which helps private landowners reduce fire risk and combines work in geographic areas for the highest community benefit.

Additional fuel breaks were funded by Common Ground in 2021, as $215,000 was invested over three years for 260 acres of work in these locations: Broadview along County Road 289; Three Elk’s community green space; Kiowa Road near Mesa Antero; and County Road 325 south of Lost Creek Ranch. This roadside thinning creates smaller fuel breaks that protect watersheds and structures, and improves emergency ingress for firefighters and egress for residents and visitors.

Read more Stories of Impact from Chaffee Common Ground.