Mesa Cortina Hazardous Fuels Reduction

December 2022 Update

The Mesa Cortina Hazardous Fuels reduction project began in the summer of 2019 with forest thinning treatments and piling of slash and fuels. Pile burn operations were then planned for the fall and winter of 2020, after allowing the piles to cure for one year. Summit County Open Space successfully hired an independent contractor, the Ember Alliance, to complete the burn plan and operations at Mesa Cortina. The Ember Alliance completed 2 days of burning in December 2020.

Following the burn operations on December 16-17, 2020, the snow became too deep to continue operations to complete the burn unit. The winter of 2021 began with very little snow and inadequate coverage for burning, followed by a single large snow event around Christmas, completely preventing us from burning in the winter of 2021. 

Unfortunately, this was followed by our non-profit partners the Ember Alliance being unable to secure liability insurance for 2022 due to changes in the private insurance market. Considering this, we have had to change strategies and engage with the State of Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control (DFPC) to complete the burn and overcome this unforeseen challenge. This pivot requires several administrative steps that we are currently working to complete, including conversion of the current burn plan into the DFPC template and an agreement for Prescribed Burn Services with DFPC. 

Through the process of updating the burn plan and visiting the site with DFPC, we have learned that several of the originally constructed piles will not burn readily, if at all, in their current state due to an overabundance of large material and a lack of small, fine fuels. Additionally, trees that have blown down on the property since the project began in 2019 have presented additional opportunities to reduce fuels in this area. We have determined that the most effective method for meeting the objectives of this project is to hire a contracted hand crew to reconstruct and expand some of the piles in the summer of 2023, followed by pile burning operations in the early winter of 2023. We are committed to seeing this project through to completion and will continue to work toward that goal.

General Project Information

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 (Continuing Winter 2023)

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 2023, 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 [email protected] 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. 

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

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)