Mesa Cortina Hazardous Fuels Reduction

In 2019, Summit County Open Space & Trails finished the first phase of a wildfire fuels reduction project on the Wildernest – Mesa Cortina Open Space, in partnership with the Colorado State Forest Service and a timber contractor. In Phase 1 timber crews felled, stacked, and removed trees from three separate sections of the open space. Phase 2, which began in December 2020, consists of burning piled slash material to eliminate these fuels from the understory. Summit County Open Space and Trails has partnered with the Ember Alliance (formerly the Forest Stewards Guild) to plan and implement phase 2 in order to ensure safe and efficient operations, while minimizing the impacts of smoke to our neighbors. 

 Project Objectives: 

  1. Reduce the initiation and spread of crown fire activity;
  2. Maintain forest resiliency to wildfire;
  3. Increase the ability of firefighters to protect structures;
  4. Maintain evacuation routes out of the surrounding neighborhoods.

 The first two objectives are accomplished by designing treatments that reduce surface and canopy fuel loading and increase the canopy base height. The forest resiliency and health objective will be met by removing unhealthy trees, increasing forest tree diversity, and by reducing tree densities to allow better growing conditions. By utilizing a thin from below (removing smaller, ladder fuels) with appropriate slash treatment, the above objectives will be met. These treatments will work in concert to reduce surface fuel loading, increase canopy base height, and to limit the transition from surface to crown fire. In addition, this will also increase the crown spacing to limit the potential for crown fire spread. By reducing the risk for crown fire, wildland firefighters will have increased ability to fight fires that may ignite in the area and protect homes threatened by encroaching flames.

Tree species in the project area include lodgepole pine and aspen, with a limited number (<1%) of Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir, bristlecone and limber pine. Living limber pine and bristlecone pine are not included in the cutting prescriptions. The mountain pine beetle infestation resulted in many dead lodgepole pine trees within the project site. A forest inventory was conducted in 2019 across the project area and found 40-60% mortality in the lodgepole pine stands.  The inventory also found 75% of the living lodgepole pine are infested with dwarf mistletoe, a native parasitic plant, that causes up to 3% mortality annually and causes stunted growth in regeneration.

Phase 1: Fuels Reduction Treatments (Summer 2019)

 For all three stands, a “thin from below” treatment was applied to target a residual 175 Trees per Acre (TPA). Thinning from below is the removal of intermediate and codominant trees to favor the large, high quality trees in the upper canopy. The prescribed density was accomplished by harvesting all dead trees within the stands, removing dying, diseased or poorly formed live trees, and removing ladder fuels under the remaining over story trees. Actual treatments were a combination of hand and mechanical felling, with most done by hand due to the sensitive nature of the riparian area along Ryan Gulch. Stems greater than 11” in diameter were bucked and left on the ground to reduce erosion and serve as wildlife habitat. Thinned materials less than 11” in diameter were consolidated into slash piles no greater than 8’ high and 10’ in diameter. The result of the thinning operation was 457 slash piles spread over the three stands

Phase 2: Prescribed Pile Burning Operations (Winter 2020-2021)

Hand piling of slash materials was completed in the summer and fall of 2019, reducing negative effects to remaining vegetation and riparian habitat along Ryan Gulch. Pile burning began in December 2020 with seasonal snowpack to ensure effective and safe consumption. Remaining piles will be burned in the early winter of 2021, when conditions allow. Open Space and Trails has obtained a Pile Prescribed Smoke Management Permit from the Air Pollution Control Division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to regulate these burn operations. This permit regulates the number of piles that can be burned each day and dictates the atmospheric and weather conditions that are required for burning to take place. Wildfire smoke can be hazardous to your health. Please see the Letter to Neighbors for more information about the burn operation. Smoke Sensitive individuals should contact Jordan Mead, Resource Specialist, at (970) 668-4065 or for more information and to be contacted directly prior to burn operations. The smoke impacts to the surrounding communities will be mitigated by burning when there are ideal conditions for smoke dispersion as well as rapid pile consumption. 

Summit County Open Space and Trails has contracted a wildland fire team from the Ember Alliance (formerly Forest Stewards Guild) for burning operations. The Forest Stewards Guild is a nationwide non-profit organization that practices and promotes responsible forestry as a means of sustaining the integrity of forest ecosystems and the human communities dependent upon them. The Guild engages in education, training, policy analysis, research, and advocacy to foster excellence in stewardship, support practicing foresters and allied professionals, and engage a broader community in the challenges of forest conservation and management. For more information on the Guild, please visit To learn more about the Forest Stewards Guild’s Fire Management Program, please visit:  The team at the Guild will provide highly experienced wildland fire professionals in order to ensure that this pile burn is conducted in a safe, well-planned, and efficient manner.

As a part of the contracted services, the Forest Stewards Guild has written a full burn plan that follows the National Wildfire Coordinating Group standards, which exceeds Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control Standards. This 21 part plan allows the professionals at the Ember Alliance (FSG) to gauge the complexity of the burn, use smoke and fire modeling to simulate the burn, establish a comprehensive checklist of pre-burn conditions, and prepare for any unforeseen challenges that might arise during the operation. Burn operations will take place with at least 6” of snow on the ground and a forecast that will maintain at least 6” of snow for 48 hours following the burn. Ideally, burning will take place on a storm day when snow is falling, further reducing impacts to the surrounding community.

Thank you for your support of Summit County’s ongoing commitment to community safety, hazardous fuels reduction, and forest health management.