Log Hill landowners’ work cuts fire risk for neighbors

Montrose Daily Press, December 20, 2022— What happens when fire-hardening meets conservation? A win for the environment, property owners — and in the case of treatments on Log Hill Mesa, for dozens of neighbors, too.

The Montgomery family and their relatives, the Fick family, own 140 acres on the Mesa. The Ficks conserved the land with the Colorado West Land Trust, and Jay Montgomery was concerned with forest health, as well as fire.

As chronicled in a recent video (https://tinyurl.com/loghillprojectvid), Montgomery reached out to the West Region Wildfire Council, which provides site assessments, home-hardening advice and, to eligible applicants, help with treatments to cut wildfire risk. Montgomery also worked with the Colorado State Forest Service and, with funding from the three entities, as well as Great Outdoors Colorado, treated and thinned piñon-juniper fuels.

The property also contains ponderosa pine. All trees on the property are threatened by beetle-kill and drought conditions.

Log Hill is densely populated for a rural area, with an estimated 650 homes in the area. Montgomery and his cousin not only cut their own risk of catastrophe by undertaking fire mitigation projects, they are also protecting others, because their property can act as a fire break.

“This particular property is located in such a location now, that if a fire were to ignite here, it could act as a fuel break for the community,” Jamie Gomez, WRWC executive director, said on the video. “The intention here, in terms of our treatment, was to reduce the risk of crown fire spread.”

A crown fire is one that spreads from treetop to treetop, turning trees into torches. It is the riskiest type of wildfire.

“That’s the hope. They reduced crown spacing of the trees so there’s less chance of a crown fire across the property,” said Leigh Robertson, Partnership & Collaboration director for the wildfire council, on Dec. 15. With fewer fuels and less ability to spread from treetop to treetop, any fire could be more easily controlled, reducing the chance of flames spreading to homes.

“We’ve done a lot of work on Log Hill over the years because it is a high risk. When piñon-juniper goes, it tends to burn hot,” Robertson said.

The Montgomery property treatment also included seeding native grasses and forbs that will not grow tall and not spread fire up to the crowns of trees if a blaze breaks out. That will help keep the fire on the ground and prevent flames from reaching the canopy.

Sixty percent or more of land in Colorado is privately owned, but wildfires affect everyone, as illustrated in the Marshall Fire and other catastrophic blazes in recent years.

A year ago come Dec. 30, the Marshall Fire ripped through Boulder County. In the end, it killed two people, multiple animals, destroyed the towns of Louisville and Superior and torched more than 6,000 acres. Close to 2,000 structures were destroyed. Fire costs exceeded $500 million.

“We could have a Marshall Fire here. There is a lot people can do to protect their homes. There are things you can do to improve your chances of your home surviving,” Robertson said.

People who own homes in the wildland-urban interface (WUI) — where development meets forest, essentially — can take two basic, yet important steps.

They should create defensive space around their homes, by paring back natural fuels from within 15 feet of the home and any decks and patios.

Do not allow dead leaves and similar vegetation to accumulate. Keep the pared back vegetation well-watered. Thin trees and shrubs so that there are at least 10 feet between treetops. Prune large shrubs to prevent ground fire from spreading into trees, and remove fallen trees.

Homeowners should further harden their houses by installing a flame-resistant roof; screening vents with metal screening; using tempered glass windows and non-combustible frames.

Pay attention to the materials used for decks and do not use wood. Do not store things like woodpiles underneath decks, or close to homes. Keep propane tanks at least 30 feet from the home.

Homeowners have to keep in mind how fires spread: If grasses beneath a tree burn, the tree can catch fire too. Fires spit embers into the air. And embers travel.

“A lot of fires start with the embers,” Robertson said. “If you have some combustible material with mulch and embers hit that, that can end up starting your house on fire.”

The WRWC has advice and programs to help. The council provides free site visits through which a mitigation specialist visits to offer suggestions about making property better able to withstand fire.

Homeowners who qualify can get further help through the WRWC’s cost-share programs. Approved landowners in Montrose, Ouray, Gunnison, Delta, Hinsdale and San Miguel counties receive technical assistance and some reimbursement funding to reduce fuels on their properties. Successful applicants pay the full cost and then are partially reimbursed once work is completed.

More information about how to apply can be found at cowildfire.org.

Being prepared for the worst case scenario also is vital when you live in wildfire-prone areas — which recent years have shown to be almost anywhere. Have an evacuation plan in place, one that includes a meeting place for members of your household. Have a bag of essentials ready to go and stored where it can be easily retrieved. Make a plan for pets and livestock.

Colorado West Land Trust is well known for its conservation easement work. Through its Restoration and Resilience Program, the trust also helps landowners identify technical resources to address stewardship of their land, which can be especially challenging in the face of drought and changing climate, Libby Collins, project manager with the trust said, in a news release announcing the Montgomery project and video.

“It is a benefit to the folks at Log Hill,” Robertson said, of the project. “Anything your neighbors can do benefits you, if they are doing a vegetation management plan and creating defensible space.”

By Katharhynn Heidelberg, Montrose Daily Press 

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