Crystal Lakes shaded fuel break project set to begin this summer

Private donations and a $180,000 grant from the Colorado State Forest Service will allow a shaded fuel break designed to mitigate wildfire danger in the Crystal Lakes and Pearl Creek area will be constructed this year at almost no cost to property owners.

“We’ve received money from the Crystal Lakes Road and Recreation Association and the Water and Sewer Association, and private donations made through the fire department’s nonprofit CF Fires organization,” said Kathy Dillon-Durica, chair of the Crystal Lakes Greenbelt Management Committee. “The funds will be used for the 10 percent match required by the Stevens Grant we received in September.”

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The Stevens Grant is for fuels reduction on non-government property that could be threatened by fire burning on US Forest Service lands, which surround the area. The matching funds can only be used for properties in the Crystal Lakes subdivision, southwest of Panhandle Reservoir, although the fuel break is designed to also protect properties in Pearl Creek Estates south and west of Crystal Lakes and north of Beaver Meadows.

“Lots (in Pearl Creek) tend to be much bigger, and we’ve been getting good response from property owners who want to participate,” Dillion-Durica said. “There may be other ways for us to make up their match.”

The GMC has been working to contact all affected property owners, and by mid-December, although they still hadn’t reached everyone, they had received only three outright refusals. Part of the problem is that many owners are out-of-state and may not have even visited their land in years, Dillion-Durica added.

“One of those who said no was someone who had already done extensive fire mitigation on his property, and he was willing to encourage his neighbors to be part of the project,” she said.

Buy-in from property owners is needed because a shaded fuel break requires creating fire defensible space for 150 feet on either side of existing roads. That means cutting down trees on private property — but not all the trees, explained Don Watkins, chair of the fire mitigation committee for Crystal Lakes.

“A shaded fuel break is not a fire break,” he told a meeting of Crystal Lakes property owners in October. “Many of the trees are left, but the crowns are separated by at least 10 feet to prevent wildfires from jumping from one to the other. You can’t fight fires in the tops of trees.”

Clearing space on either side of a roadway also makes it easier for fire equipment to reach the scene of a wildfire and provides firefighters a place to stage operations as well as a better escape route for residents in the event of an evacuation, he added.

Construction of the fuel break doesn’t mean property owners don’t have to create their own defensible space and follow FireWise practices, but it will protect the community from the threat of wildfires sweeping up from the southwest with the prevailing winds. Such steps can help reduce the cost of homeowner’s insurance as well as help with the pine beetle epidemic by taking out dead trees and improving the overall health of the forest.

Diana Selby of the state Forest Service is coordinating the shaded fuel break project. She plans to have the final alignment of the break set and out for bid in March of April and contractors hired to begin work in the summer.