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Summit County: Pine beetle fire risk may have peaked

The most recent extent of beetle kill and location of forest health projects are shown in the map of the White River National Forest. Click on the image for a full-size view.

Federal funding for forest projects will shrink in 2011

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — The Forest Service will continue focusing its forest health efforts on clearing dead lodgepoles from around recreation sites, trails, roads, powerlines and watersheds in 2011, but may see its funding dwindle in this region, according to White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams.

Visit Forest Service Rocky Mountain regional bark beetle info website here.

The main emphasis is public safety — trying to mitigate the hazard of falling trees — but Fitzwilliams said campground operators have also taken a financial hit from closures, as well as from reduced overnights because of the changing landscapes at many campgrounds.

Altogether, the agency has managed to treat about 61 percent of the targeted recreation sites, 18 percent of the targeted wildland-urban interface areas, and 12 percent of the targeted roads and trails.
“We haven’t even seen the beginning of the trees falling down yet. Sooner or later we’re going to get a wind event … microbursts not uncommon in these mountains,” Fitzwilliams explained.

Speaking Thursday morning at the Summit Forest Health Task Force meeting, Fitzwilliams also said the fire danger associated with the beetle-kill event may have peaked in some areas, as the dead, red needles fall to the ground, leaving gray snags that aren’t necessarily as prone to ignition as live trees.

“We’re probably down in fire risk because the needles are off,” he said, adding that rangers are still trying to understand the long-term risk of fire danger associated with dead and down trees. Some Forest Service experts have warned that an intense ground fire could bake the earth into a sterile glaze.
“We really don’t know what the fire model is (for heavy ground fuel loads), but we know it’s not good,” he said.

While detailed maps for the 2010 spread of the beetles haven’t been released yet, Fitzwilliams said early indications are that the spread of insects has slowed somewhat in Summit County — but only because the bugs have already destroyed most of the mature trees in the area.

Of the $10 million spent in 2010, $7.2 million went to mitigating fire danger in the wildland-urban interface, the so-called red zone, where homes and property are at risk. ABout $1.7 million was spent cutting trees along forest roads.

For now, the Forest Service is still operating under a continuing budget resolution, which means that funding for forest health work is uncertain.

Fitzwilliams said there is more competition for the dollars.

“The good news is, there is about $70 million is on the discussion table,  but there are other regions in the game. We could get $20 to $25 million …no matter what happens, we’ll probably be down from where we were last year,” he concluded.

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