Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack lauds cooperation, pledges post-fire assistance and continued focus on forest restoration
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — Along with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, top federal officials toured the High Park Fire zone Saturday, then emphasized the high level of cooperation between local volunteer fire departments, the Colorado Forest Service and the U.S. Forest Service in working to contain the 55,000-acre wildfire, now one of the largest on record in Colorado.
Though more than 100 homes have been reported destroyed, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said at an afternoon press conference that cooperation helped save thousands of other structures that were potentially in harm’s way.
Hickenlooper displayed photo of a tree he said was the source of the High Park Fire, struck by lightning a few days before the blaze grew out of control. He emphasized that the High Park Fire only burned across about 0.2 percent of public lands in the state, seeking to reassure visitors that the state’s forests are still open for recreation.
“What impressed me was the strategic approach to fighting this fire … We need to be aggressive, persistent and patient,” Vilsack said, adding that, so far, more than 140,000 man-hours have been devoted to fighting the High Park Fire.
Vilsack said there appears to be more of a recognition in Congress these days as to the serious threat of wildfires in drought- and beetle-stricken forests, citing recent passage of a measure that enables the Forest Service to contract for more heavy airtankers for firefighting.
He said the current Forest Service focus on restoration and stewardship is aimed at making forests more resilient to fire and other threats. Just in the past few years, the federal government has devoted $55 million to restoration projects in Colorado, he added.
The Forest Service will also work with other agencies to identify and mitigate post-fire threats in the area, including flash flooding from run-off on the fire-baked ground. In most large forest fires, the agency starts evaluating rehabilitation options even before the last of the flames are doused.
Vilsack also said his tour of the fire area made it clear that spotty communications in the area added to the challenge of fighting the fire. He suggested that rural development agencies might take a look at planning for more communication sites to improve future fire-fighting efforts.
But Vilsack also acknowledged that the Forest Service is behind the curve on forest management.
“We have some catch-up to do … we now have the plan that will allow us to do a better job to make our forests more resilient … and we now have the plan that will allow us to do a better job to make our forests more resilient,” he said.
Filed under: climate and weather, Colorado, Drought, forest fires Tagged: | Colorado wildfires, High Park Fire, High Park fire map, High Park fire map june 16, John Hickenlooper, Tom Vilsack, United States Forest Service