Planning began last November to update the Lake County Community Wildfire Protection Plan with a community meeting sponsored by Lake County Open Space Initiative. The meeting, which was intended to gauge the community’s understanding of forest health and wildfire mitigation, came just months after Colorado recorded two of its largest wildfires to date.
At the meeting, several local leaders, including Commissioner Sarah Mudge and Leadville District Ranger Patrick Mercer, presented on wildfire mitigation tactics and planning in Lake County. The event was followed by two smaller meetings in January and March that honed in on November’s discussion.
“The first step in updating our wildfire protection plan is to inform and engage the public,” Mudge told the Herald. “Then it becomes a plan developed with the community, in which the community can inform what amendments we make.”
Lake County Government is currently distributing a community wildfire survey that will circulate until April 15. The survey asks questions like, “Do you own or rent your primary Lake County residence?” or “In a single word or short phrase, what are three things you love the most about Lake County?”
The survey will also inform any amendments made to the Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) and is designed to help identify priorities and assets that should be protected during a wildfire.
This is a key distinction from the county’s current CWPP, which is five years old and identifies residences and subdivisions as assets, but not other resources like recreational areas and utility facilities.
The final part of planning will involve a county map identifying assets that are revealed in the planning process. The county will likely work with the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute when it comes time for the mapping phase.
“In general, the Lake County community is currently unprepared for a big fire,” said Mike Conlin, facilitator for Lake County Open Space Initiative (LCOSI). “But this planning gets everyone on the same page and speaking the same language so that we can be ready should a fire occur.”
Mudge said that amendments to the CWPP will be introduced to the Board of County Commissioners for approval and adoption early next year. Mudge has also worked closely with Cindy Williams and others from the Envision Forest Health Council (EFHC) in Chaffee County throughout the process. In fact, Lake County will mimic many of the wildfire mitigation tactics that Chaffee County rolled out last year.
In Chaffee County, a planning process similar to the one Lake County is working on revealed that treating just five percent of forests could mitigate the risk of a large-scale forest fire by 50 percent. The plan also identified about 30,000 acres of land that was in need of treatment, which includes thinning trees, prescribing burns and patch clearing.
In Lake County, forest treatment won’t start on a large scale until the CWPP is amended and the mapping process is complete. However, the county has already begun the process of applying for some of the same funding that Chaffee County used to begin its forest treatment projects.
One such resource is the Upper Arkansas Forest Fund, a five-year grant managed by the National Forest Foundation (NFF) that helps bring foresters to areas where forest management is needed, particularly on land that is privately owned. In Chaffee County, the fund helped the county implement some of the projects mapped out in its CWPP, and, starting next year, the program will begin work throughout Chaffee County’s forests.
“Our hope is that the fund can actually support work in both Chaffee and Lake Counties,” said Marcus Selig, vice president of field programs for NFF. “Right about when Lake County’s CWPP is finished, the fund will be available for renewal and expansion.”
Selig added that the NFF is also working to raise funds for the Tennessee Creek Project near Turquoise Lake, where the NFF hopes to deploy foresters to assist in fuel mitigation and forest treatment efforts. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) has been working on the project since 2018, but Selig says there are still thousands of acres within the project area that are available for treatment.
As of February, the Maid of Erin and East Turquoise portions of the Tennessee Creek Project are complete. Both entailed mechanical tree removal and pile burning.
Mercer said the next phase of the project, which includes land adjacent to the Printer Boy and Belle of Colorado campgrounds, will begin as early as September. Treatment for that land will also consist of mechanical tree removal and pile burning.
Progress on the Tennessee Creek Project will continue around the north side of Turquoise Lake over the coming years and is slated for completion in 2023.
Mudge said there are no other significant wildfire mitigation projects taking place in Lake County at the moment, but that more will be on the docket once the CWPP is finished.
The USFS Leadville Ranger District is currently requesting public input on a project that would implement vegetation treatment on more than 4,000 acres near Twin Lakes. Mercer could not be reached for comment on the project by the Herald’s press time.
“Wildfires don’t distinguish between counties ... they go where they want,” explained Conlin. “So while the CWPP is important, really, this is about creating relationships regionally so that we can be a united force against wildfires.”