This view of Roan Mountain Road in April 2011 shows post-thinning work (prior to chipping). Image credit: Dave Cawrse.

Topic: Fuels treatment / Prescribed fire Wildfire Type: Success Story / Lessons Learned

Redstone Canyon – A Mitigation Success Story

Authors: Molly Mowery

In the spirit of sharing wildfire mitigation success stories, such as the prescribed fire that helped moderate the behavior of the recent wildfire threatening Weaverville, California, we are highlighting another story that came through our FAC channels this summer. The following story has been adapted from a previously published version.

This success story showcases Redstone Canyon, an unincorporated community in Larimer County, Colorado with about 85 residences that are scattered throughout the 6,800-acre canyon. A seven-mile-long county road provides main access up the canyon, and there are an additional 24 miles of privately maintained roads accessing homes on the upper slopes.

The Poudre Fire Authority has rated this wildland-urban interface community as severe in terms of its community hazard rating. Vegetation consists of ponderosa pine, juniper, and Douglas-fir, with a mix of shrubs and grasslands. In the late 1960s, several ranches were sub-divided into 40-acre lots. A road system was pioneered through the area, and the exposed mineral soil provided an ideal seedbed for germinating ponderosa pine. In some places these trees, now about 40 years old, were so thick that one could not walk through them. This dense regenerative tree growth also provides prime ladder fuels for intense fire in the upper drainages. The trees in the upper portions of the canyon are primarily ponderosa pine of varying ages, some over 300 years old.

The Hayman fire in 2001 demonstrated that huge fires can occur in dense ponderosa pine. The question was not if there would be fire in Redstone Canyon, but when. Residents were already keenly aware of the Bobcat Gulch Fire, which had occurred only a few miles away in 2000.

Prior to 2008, actions primarily consisted of thinning around homes and bringing the slash to a central point in the canyon, where it was burned once a year. The enormous slash pile required a permit from the County to burn, which the county stopped issuing in 2008 after concerns from local residents.

A group of concerned residents met to discuss other strategies, including hauling material, prescribed burning and chipping. The group finally settled on applying for cost-share grants through the Colorado State Forest Service. The residents needed to match at least half the cost of fuel reduction, primarily by providing labor. With former loggers and firefighters living in the canyon, fortunately that was not a problem. The grant also required a community wildfire protection plan (CWPP), which had been completed in cooperation with Poudre Fire Authority. Finally, a strategy and prescription needed to be in place that not only addressed defensible space but also firefighter access, fuel breaks and fuel disposal.

In 2009 the Redstone Migators formed to address the project needs. After several meetings, key roads were identified to use as fuel breaks, including Roan Mountain Road due to its orientation and location: it is an east-west road on top of a ridge and provides an ideal place to stop the advance of fire, where winds usually drive the fire from the northwest or southwest.

Work began in December 2010 as the Mitigators started thinning and stacking trees along the road. The Mitigators thinned every Saturday morning from January through April, with chipping completed in mid-May. Thinning resulted in the removal of about 2,000 trees. The contractor, paid by the state, chipped the trees and scattered the 1-inch chips along the roadside. In addition, several homeowners undertook thinning on their own, with some help from the Mitigators and others paying to have additional work done.

Redstone Canyon and the Mitigators’ work was put to the test when the High Park Fire began. This lightning caused wildfire was first detected on June 9, 2012 and would eventually burn over 87,284 acres – becoming the third-largest fire in recorded Colorado history (by area burned). The fire also claimed more than 259 homes and one life.

These two aerial images of Roan Mountain Road show pre-thinning work (top photo, June 2010) and post-thinning work (bottom, June 2011). Approximately 2000 trees adjacent to the road were thinned. Image credit: Dave Cawrse

These two aerial images of Roan Mountain Road show pre-thinning work (top photo, June 2010) and post-thinning work (bottom, June 2011). Approximately 2000 trees adjacent to the road were removed. Image credit: Dave Cawrse

From the start of the fire, Roan Mountain Road became important in two ways: 1) it provided fire fighters with immediate and safe access to the threatened area, and 2) it provided a location to start a burnout on the north side of the road. This burnout met the advancing flames and was successful in stopping the fire from crossing the road. The only place where the fire jumped the road was in an un-thinned area that was scheduled for treatment in 2013. This area provided a striking contrast to the thinned areas, where only grasses burned and the fire never reached the canopies of the trees. The un-thinned area, on the other hand, carried a crown fire and required significant work from firefighters to suppress it.

On June 17th, the fire blew up again. A northwest wind drove the fire back down toward Roan Mountain Road. Fire fighters were working other parts of the fire and were not available to protect Redstone Canyon; high winds also restricted retardant drops. Thanks specifically to the mitigation work previously undertaken, when the fire reached the thinned area it dropped out of the tree canopy.  No homes were lost along Roan Mountain Road, and the fire never crossed the road.

Later that year, Mitigators were awarded the Larimer County Environmental Stewardship Award. Poudre Fire Authority’s Chief Tom DeMint said, “The fuels reduction work of the Redstone Canyon Mitigators in early 2012 along Roan Mountain Road in Redstone Canyon provide a safer environment for burnout operations and structure protection and was instrumental in enabling firefighting resources to keep the High Park Fire from spreading south of the Roan Mountain Road. Had the fire spread south of Roan Mountain Road, the east side of Redstone Canyon, Lory State Park, Horsetooth Mountain Park, numerous structures near Horsetooth Reservoir, and communication towers on Horsetooth Mountain would have been at severe risk. The hard work of the [Redstone Canyon Mitigators], combined with the efforts of the High Park Fire Incident Management Team and Poudre Fire Authority resources, made a significant difference in limiting the destruction caused by the High Park Fire.”

In summary, the thinning can be attributed with saving four homes, avoiding suppression costs of upwards of a half-million dollars, and saving the electronic site on Horsetooth Ridge – the primary means of communication for Larimer County during the fire – from burning up. This mitigation project demonstrates that community driven efforts can be successful in reducing the threat of large, high-intensity wildfires by establishing fuel breaks and creating defensible space around homes. The partnership of private, county, state and federal resources made this project successful.

Acknowledgements: This story was provided by Dave Cawrse, Biometrics Group Leader with the USDA Forest Service – Forest Management Service Center. For more information on Redstone Canyon Fire Mitigators, please contact Phil Kessler (phil.pumagulch[at]gmail.com), who was a leader in organizing local efforts, developing the Community Wildfire Protection Plan, and working with Poudre Fire Authority to establish a fire house in Redstone Canyon.