Senator Bennet on Silverthorne Fuel Treatments- They Dodged a Bullet

This 3D rendering shows the boundaries of the Buffalo Mountain Fire and surrounding neighborhoods. The red line indicates the approximate fire perimeter. Image courtesy Summit County.

I realize that groups of scientists can, and do, write that “fuel treatments don’t work.” But this is pretty much a hard sell around many communities in Colorado. Basically, the argument seems to be that you should believe this subset of scientists over your own experience (even if you aren’t familiar with the scientific literature that says otherwise, as we have looked at on this blog).

Below is an example from Colorado Politics (a valuable resource- wish that all states had this quality and attention of reporting!). We can see a successful fuel treatment, collaboration, and what success looks like in dollars. Note that Senator Bennet is a Democratic Senator from Colorado. #resistpartisanization

SILVERTHORNE • Looking west to California, where a wildfire just exploded into the largest in state history, Colorado forest officials and politicians had a “there but for the grace of God (and a lot of hard work)” moment on the flanks of Buffalo Mountain above Silverthorne on Tuesday.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet on Tuesday toured a 90-acre burn area on U.S. Forest Service land adjacent to two Silverthorne neighborhoods that very nearly erupted into a catastrophic loss of property June 12 before crews using slurry bombers, helicopters and boots on the ground beat back the flames. Nearly 1,400 homes were evacuated, but no properties were lost.

Bennet credits 900 acres of defensible space — basically tree clearing — that Forest Service officials completed in 2012 in conjunction with Summit County, Denver Water and the Colorado State Forest Service. The project cost more than $1 million and did not come without pushback.

“I was here in 2012, and this was very controversial to create this kind of firebreak, and you can see why,” Bennet said. “The community is used to living with trees right next to it, but there’s a safe way of doing it. This demonstrates that, and I hope everybody in this state and everybody in the West can see the benefits of this.”

Local and federal officials estimate that by spending $1 million on creating defensible space by clearing trees — an area where firefighters can safely work to combat a wildfire — more than $1 billion in property was saved in Silverthorne during the mid-June Buffalo fire.

“The Buffalo Fire may be the ultimate example of what our goals are when we do those fuel-reduction projects and those fuel breaks,” White River National Forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said. “Sometimes they don’t work out perfectly, but this one did, and the importance can’t be underestimated.”

Over the last 10 years, more than 12,000 acres of national forest have been treated by thinning and clearing in the Dillon Ranger District at a cost of more than $12 million. About a quarter of that cost has been picked up by Denver Water through the Forests to Faucets partnership.

That’s because wildfires devastate watersheds, causing pollution and erosion, and Summit County is one of the most critical sources of water for the Denver metro area. Summit County also has contributed funding as Forest Service mitigation resources dwindled in recent years.

Perhaps this is a case of “economic interests” (homes, businesses, watersheds) triumphing over “ecological interests”- but I don’t think that that would fly as a narrative in Silverthorne.

13 thoughts on “Senator Bennet on Silverthorne Fuel Treatments- They Dodged a Bullet”

  1. Could someone please tell me what scientists claim that fuel reduction work directly adjacent to communities “don’t work” or aren’t a potentially good idea?

    Don’t we all agree that defensible space work on homes and within the immediate surroundings of communities are a good idea?

    I don’t really see many folks arguing for the “ecological interests” of the subdivision of homes in that 3D image.

    Can anyone point to any “environmental terrorist group” or just normal, basic “environmental group” that strongly opposed what was planned around these homes?

    Seems to me that you are mixing apples and oranges here Sharon, in an attempt to create a strawman argument.

    • Nope. I have heard from some scientists that “100 feet is all you need as per Jack Cohen”. Based on another news story, this project was 300-500 feet from homes. But we can keep our eyes open for future formulations of this. We once had a group of scientists from CU who talked to us about “fuel treatments in the backcountry” being unnecessary but couldn’t point to any specific project in “the backcountry”. Since funding has prioritized WUI, I wonder how many of these (backcountry fuel projects) exist . We have talked about SPLATS but scientists such as Mark Finney design them so how can they be “unscientific.” My point is more about one group of scientists claiming they hold the key to “science” when there are equally (or more) valid points of view from other scientists.

      You posted this in 2016 in which people were concerned about tree removal near their communities. .

      • Sharon, you continue to compare apples to oranges and continue to intentionally conflate things. I have better uses of my time than arguing with you over 70 yards, which basically has next to zero relationship to anything regarding the federal timber sale program and fuel reduction activities of the U.S. Forest Service, or Bureau of Land Management or NPS.

  2. Sharon: Can you point me to the scientific literature that advises against placing fuel treatments right next to suburban developments (viz “I realize that groups of scientists can, and do, write that ‘fuel treatments don’t work.'”)?

    • Here’s an example of such a formulation… the “100 feet is enough” school of thought.

      “In such situations, destruction in theWUI is primarily a result of the flammability of the residential
      areas themselves, rather than the flammability of the adjacent wildlands. It may not be necessary or effective to treat fuels in adjacent areas in order to suppress fires before they reach homes;
      rather, it is the treatment of the fuels immediately proximate to the residences, and the degree to which the residential structures themselves can ignite that determine if the residences are
      By reducing the flammability of structures, WUI fuel treatments can be designed such that an extreme wildfire can occur in the WUI without having a residential fire disaster. Although general wildfire control efforts may not benefit from fuel treatments during extreme fire behavior, fuel modifications can significantly change outcome of a wildfire within a treatment area. Research has shown that a home’s characteristics and its immediate surroundings principally determine the WUI ignition potential during
      extreme wildfire behavior (Cohen, 2000a,c, 2003, 2004). The area that primarily determines WUI ignition potential is called the home ignition zone (Cohen, 2001). WUI fuel treatments can address the
      home ignition zone by removing flammable materials immediately adjacent to residences, and by decreasing the flammability of the residences themselves (for example by choice in roofing and deck
      materials). There are opportunities for reducing the home ignition potential during extreme WUI fires without the necessity of changing the broader-scale wildfire behavior. That is, effective
      WUI fuel treatments for preventing WUI fire disasters can focus on the structures and their immediate surroundings (Agee et al., 2000; Finney and Cohen, 2003).”

      • Sharon,

        Where in this paper does it say “100 feet is enough?” Furthermore, where in this paper does it say “100 feet is enough and no fuel treatments should be extended another 70 yards.?”

        Seriously, can’t believe you are having this argument. But whatever.

        • “It may not be necessary or effective to treat fuels in adjacent areas in order to suppress fires before they reach homes; rather, it is the treatment of the fuels immediately proximate to the residences, and the degree to which the residential structures themselves can ignite that determine if the residences are vulnerable.”

          “That is, effective WUI fuel treatments for preventing WUI fire disasters can focus on the structures and their immediate surroundings.”

          • Help me out Sharon: Where does it say “100 feet is enough” and that no fuel treatments should extend, say 300 feet, from a home?

            You are claiming it says that, but I can’t seem to find it. Again, this is just such a weird and unproductive exercise. How many federal timber sales or projects proposed to do fuel treatments 300-500 feet from homes and were opposed because that was way too far away?

  3. Here’s another image of this fire and the fuel break. Again, would love to know specifically which environmental groups and/or scientists opposed this type of defensible space work immediately around homes.

  4. What scientists say (and how that might apply here):
    1) Logging can make fire hazard better or worse depending on a lot of variables (which means some treatments can work if they are done right and get lucky, as in all the variables align favorably).
    2) There is a low probability that fuel treatments will interact with wildfire during the brief period before fuels regrow (which means that a small subset of fuel treatments are lucky (or unlucky?) enough to actually interact with fire).

    • Shaded fuelbreaks and thinning from below work pretty good, addressing both #1 and #2 on your list. I’m also pretty sure that modern thinning practices have many other benefits, other than mitigating fire behavior and allowing safe(r) prescribed burning. Of course, ALL fuels treatments require some sort of maintenance to be effective, over time.

    • 1. Yes, and for example, anti-sexual harassment programs at universities only work sometimes, so the key is to find out when they don’t work and improve that. You can easily see in this case that it’s judgment , not science, to decide we should stop doing something because sometimes it doesn’t work or simply work to improve it. The only people that know for sure how to do that are fuels specialists and suppression practitioners.

      2. Trees grow differently in different places and in some places, it is not so brief a time before they regrow. I don’t think that you can generalize across the western US. But we have many cases of wildfires hitting fuel treatments in fuel treatment effectiveness reports.. so perhaps people have prioritized fuel treatments in the right places.


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