Plan and Prepare for Wildfires
Updated: Jul 6, 2021
The Backcountry Wilderness Area team is in a constant state of preparing for a wildfire. Improving wildlife habitat and fire mitigation go hand-in-hand in work with key partners.
Eric Hurst was a Franktown firefighter on the warm October afternoon when the Cherokee Ranch Fire broke out in 2003. The 80-degree fall day, matched with winds gusting up to 40 miles per hour, spelled the worst recipe for the wildfire moving towards surrounding homes. About 1,200 acres in Cherokee Ranch, Daniel’s Park, and what would become the Backcountry Wilderness Area, were charred that day after investigators said a tree blew into power lines and knocked them down. Four structures were lost and between 10,000 and 12,000 residents were evacuated.
Hurst has seen, first-hand, how unpredictable fire can be in the Wildland Urban Interface we call home. Now, the public information officer for the South Metro Fire Rescue, he’s watching how deliberate planning, practice, and execution is the best defense against a potential close-to-home catastrophic wildfire. South Metro Fire Rescue (SMFR) is the key wildland fire and emergency partner for the HRCA Backcountry Wilderness Area (BWA). Since merging with the Littleton Fire Rescue in 2018, the crew from SMFR and the BWA have been in a major collaboration to stay ahead of potential fire emergencies in the Backcountry.
It started with the blueprints. The Backcountry Wilderness Area used to have “street names” for the dirt roads that run through it. To be more precise, monikers like “Main Street” became “A1” and fit into an easy-to-decode emergency map that the South Metro wildland firefighters can study from the firehouses and the Backcountry staff can relay locations to dispatch and first responders. “At a fire station level, firefighters will train on the maps,” Hurst says. “They highlight water sources, landing zones for helicopters, the number of homes in the map grid.
“The important thing with wildfires is to come up with the expected and worst-case conditions. These maps help us predict those. We look at vegetation, people, assets. We ask, ‘What will it take to protect them?’ What we know is it takes a big, continuous conversation with all the people involved.”
In addition to SMFR, this conversation includes Centennial Water which has wells located throughout the Backcountry Wilderness Area. The Backcountry’s internal road system is there to service Centennial Water’s wells, which help provide water to Highlands Ranch. Recently, the ongoing maintenance of the road system has greatly improved in order to allow the largest SMFR trucks to reach fires safely and more effectively. Centennial Water continues to be a partner in preparation for wildfires as they share in the cost of the road system’s maintenance.
The groundwork for preparing for a wildfire is in place, but the conversations between the SMFR and the Backcountry Wilderness Area are fluid with constant plans for improvement. Mark Giebel, director of the Backcountry Wilderness Area, says that the planning and training that started since the fire department merger got a major test last June when the Chatridge 2 Fire threatened homes in the BackCountry subdivision. “The maps and on the ground marking of the roads were tested during the June 2020 fire,” Giebel says. “We were able to communicate directly to responding firefighters where to access and what roads to use to speed up their response time and get firefighters in place in a quick and safe manner.”
Maps and signage are key … and so is seeing and knowing the landscape the maps cover. Late this spring, teams of South Metro firefighters headed into the Backcountry Wilderness Area’s vast wildlife habitat to put “boots on the ground” and take out some wildfire fuel. All of the South Metro firefighters are trained as wildland firefighters including a group of specialists who have more extensive training. During their multiple, half-day shifts, crews practiced their chain saw skills in the ponderosa pine forests of the Backcountry. Backcountry staff marked the trees to be cut down, which are trees that need to be thinned for forest and ecosystem health, as well as to mitigate wildfire potential.
“This mitigation gets our wildland firefighters on the ground to get intimate with the landscape before a fire,” Hurst says. “It makes them true subject matter experts. It makes their maps come alive. Not only are we helping the wildlife by mitigating fuel for a potential fire, but the firefighters are also getting trained. Anytime we can reduce the fuel we hope the fires will spread slow. It’s healthier for the whole ecosystem.”
The SMFR benefits from the training and the Backcountry Wilderness Area sees improvements in mitigation through lots of extra hands to help with the big job. “For us, it is much needed and desired free labor that the fire department is providing,” Giebel says. “They’re doing thousands of dollars of work in the form of forest management for us.
“And they also take the time to cut the trees into perfect bench size stools for our outdoor classrooms. It is a rare and true win-win situation.”
Fires are part of nature’s lifecycle. Natural and prescribed burns can restore health to forests by doing jobs like ridding them of dead growth in the forest canopy (stopping sunlight from reaching the younger trees below) and eliminating the spread of invasive species.
One invasive species is cheatgrass. This non-native grass is a huge problem throughout the western United States. It ruins wildlife habitat and is also a major fire risk. Cheatgrass typically dries out in early June and becomes super flammable, increasing a wildfire’s rate of spread and flame length. In 2020, an herbicide was approved for use in rangeland areas that targets cheatgrass specifically. Several test plots were tried in the Backcountry Wilderness Area to measure the effectiveness of the herbicide and the results were fantastic.
This aerial photo (above) shows where we sprayed. We sprayed on the right side of the road to the right. Cheatgrass is the brown-colored grass. You can see a straight line of where we stopped spraying along that road. We’ll continue to attack cheatgrass over the coming years, greatly improving habitat while also reducing wildfire risk.
Cheatgrass can quickly move a wildfire from one pine forest to another, but the most important task may be clearing out the growth at the base of trees. When foliage grows and surrounds tree trunks, it acts as ladder fuel for a fire to access the forest tops. In an uncontrolled situation, this fuel leads to potentially devastating results for trees, wildlife, and surrounding properties alike.
Since fires have long been suppressed in this region due to population growth and development, a major part of the long-term conservation plan for the Backcountry Wilderness Area is using a forestry masticator to manually trim down the undergrowth throughout the pine forests. The BWA staff has completed more than 100 acres in the past 4 years. To clear the entire property of undergrowth once, we estimate it could take more than a decade. As the growth returns after about 24-36 months, fire mitigation will be a forever project in the conservation of the Backcountry Wilderness Area.
“The work we’re doing with the brush clearing is certainly a long-term project and a huge endeavor, but we have to start somewhere,” Giebel says. “At this point, we could not even have a prescribed burn on the property without the potential for catastrophic habitat loss because of the overgrowth from more than 100 years of fire suppression.
“But, the benefit of the fire mitigation is habitat improvement. Brush clearing increases edge habitats, increases grasses, allows for new growth of ponderosa pine saplings, creates a diverse age structure of oak within the property, and much more.”
Fires in and around the Backcountry Wilderness Area will happen. Keeping them small and manageable is the plan. Thanks to South Metro Fire Rescue, our strategic partner in this effort, along with support from our neighbors and Friends of the Backcountry, we’ll be diligent in our planning and continued mitigation work. It’s a responsibility we take very seriously.
Be Part of the Protection Plan
Do you live in a Wildlife Urban Interface? Know what you can do to improve a property to protect it against wildfire by connecting to a South Metro Fire Rescue Risk Reduction Specialist by emailing Reducingrisk@southmetro.org.
Directly impact fire mitigation and habitat conservation in the Backcountry Wilderness Area! Support the Backcountry Conservation and Education Fund (501c3) by becoming a Friend of the Backcountry today.