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Durango identifies 6 miles around city limits for fire mitigation

Two-year effort aims to eliminate overgrowth near populated areas
Mark Loveall, supervisory forester for the Colorado State Forest Service in Durango, and Amy Schwarzbach, city of Durango natural resources manager, look over a clump of Gambel oak and trees Thursday in Overend Mountain Park. The city is partnering with agencies to reduce the wildfire danger in the wildland urban interface around city limits.

When the 416 Fire headed south toward Durango in 2018, firefighters knew they had a place where they might be able to make it turn: the Falls Creek community, said Hal Doughty, Durango Fire Protection District fire chief.

Residents there had been mitigating the landscape since 2002, when the Missionary Ridge Fire and the Falls Creek Fire scorched thousands of acres north of Durango, he said.

“That really was the turning point,” Doughty said. “Both for turning the 416 Fire and stopping it, we literally made the fire go in a different direction at that neighborhood.”

The city of Durango is gearing up for its next fire season, and this year, the city is focused on 6 miles of high-risk boundary land – areas where fire mitigation could be key to turning back future blazes.

A Wildfire Risk to Communities map, a project of the U.S. Forest Service, shows the risk posed by wildfires to homes in the Durango area. Dark red indicates the highest risk while light yellow indicates the lowest risk.

On wildfire risk maps, Durango is bordered by seas of reds and oranges indicating higher-than-average wildfire risk. It’s a longstanding issue, but the 416 Fire in 2018 shook the city and its land management partners into taking collective action.

In 2019, they formed the Fire Adapted Durango Partnership, which says treating the 6-mile boundary area is a complicated but necessary part of protecting Durango from wildfires.

“We have applied for funds, and we are ready to hit the ground running as soon as snow melts,” said Amy Schwarzbach, the city’s natural resources manager. “... We’ve been working on this for a year and a half. Things feel great.”

Mark Loveall, with the Colorado State Forest Service in Durango, and Amy Schwarzbach, with the city of Durango, look over a growth of Gambel oak Thursday in Overend Mountain Park. Gambel oak and other materials that burn easily pose a risk during fire season.

Populated areas in Durango have a greater risk of being impacted by wildfire than 73% of communities in Colorado.

The city is located in the wildland urban interface, or WUI, where wildfire-prone areas intermix with homes and built structures. Over the last few decades, 60% to 80% of wildfires around the United States have started in the WUI. Most of these fires were caused by humans, Schwarzbach said.

The partnership, a collection of eight regional land management, utility and fire agencies coordinated by the city, aims to decrease that risk.

The partners plan to build on past city efforts to mitigate city-owned lands, nurture healthy forests and watersheds, and support communitywide programs.

For example, the Bureau of Land Management, the largest adjacent landowner to city-owned open space, has made a 10-year commitment to treat 23,000 acres in La Plata County.

Similar commitments from private landowners and other agencies are vital, said Ian Barrett, fire management specialist with the BLM in Dolores.

Through the partnership, they can share resources and coordinate their fire mitigation efforts.

“The reason it’s so critical is because we each have our spheres of influence,” Barrett said. “Every single person, and that includes every resident in Durango, needs to be part of this collective to ensure that we have a positive outcome when we have a wildfire.”

The biggest risk

Addressing wildfire risk is multifaceted. It involves prevention resources when there is a fire, public education efforts and removing flammable materials through mitigation.

The partnership is focusing on all of that, but one of its first priorities is securing the city’s boundaries. That way a fire on city-owned land is less likely to spread elsewhere and vice versa.

In 2019, the partnership’s fire experts and public land managers took stock of the city’s boundaries, dozens of miles that would take years to fully mitigate.

The 416 Fire burns in June 2018 off U.S. Highway 550 north of Durango.

They looked at worst-case scenarios: days when fuels, like trees and plant litter, are particularly dry, the relative humidity is low, temperatures are high and wind is likely. Days like June 1, 2018, when the 416 Fire started, Barrett said.

“That’s your framework: Will a certain area be able to survive a fire under the worst conditions?” he said.

They focused on areas where a fire could impact public infrastructure, like power lines and water infrastructure, or neighborhoods.

About 6 linear miles became the city’s first priority, sections of city-owned boundary land generally located at Horse Gulch, Overend Mountain Park and Dalla Mountain Park.

City and fire officials want to reduce wildfire risk around Durango, and they plan to start by mitigating 6 miles of high-risk land, generally located at Horse Gulch, Overend Mountain Park and Dalla Mountain Park.

In 2020, the city and its partners mitigated 6,000 feet, with most points 100 feet to 130 feet wide. The city is determining how to do the mitigation work – and how much it will cost. It aims to mitigate the full 6 miles by 2022, although it could take longer, Schwarzbach said.

Not if, but when

The fire experts and land managers said reducing wildfire risk in Durango needs to be a holistic, ongoing process.

“There’s no silver bullet for us to have a good outcome when it comes to wildfires,” Barrett said. “We need to eliminate the thought process that we’re going to eliminate fires. ... We need to focus on making sure that we have a positive outcome to that wildfire.”

But fire mitigation projects are easier said than done.

Once the snow melts, fire experts and land managers will be able to start mitigating high-risk areas along Durango city limits.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic slowed work on two trails, Powerline and Skyline. Grant money was delayed, and sawyer crews were less available. Crews can’t start working until the snow melts, Schwarzbach said.

Mitigation is expensive, especially near homes. City staff members often use grants to stretch taxpayer dollars further, she said. Sharing equipment and crews through the partnership can also save costs, and other city efforts, such as noxious weed removal, contribute to fire mitigation efforts, she said.

But grant-funded mitigation might not be the best management plan, said Barbara Noseworthy, a Durango City Council member who has advocated for more mitigation efforts.

“You want to put it in the budget,” Noseworthy said. Like the fire experts, she said the next fire is “not a matter of ‘if,’ but ‘when,’” and the city has a responsibility to prepare.

“Our natural environment is an incredible resource for our community, and we want to make certain it doesn’t go up in flames,” Noseworthy said.

Fire mitigation crews carefully select plants to be removed from overgrown areas. They focus on keeping all old-growth trees and vegetation, while protecting them by clearing the vegetation around them.

The public’s reaction to fire mitigation can throw a wrench in the plan. People grow attached to the plant life around them and might be reluctant to remove any of it. Or, the idea of an out-of-control prescribed burn concerns nearby homeowners.

“Typically, the least worrisome (options) are most expensive. Least expensive are most risky,” Doughty said. “Finding a balance there is a critical element, and it’s one of the biggest struggles that we have.”

As the fire experts and land managers prepare for the upcoming mitigation work, they are focused on working with nearby landowners and encouraging them to do their own mitigation.

“It’s so important to do the community engagement piece so the residents understand what’s going on,” Doughty said.


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