Summertime is slash-and-burn time in Colorado’s high country

The hills are alive with the sounds of … chain saws and choppers.

Crews have fanned out across the high country in recent weeks, taking advantage of federal, state and local funding to cut down hundreds of acres of beetle-killed lodgepole pine trees in what forest officials refer to as “wildland-urban interface” areas.

In Vail, for example, six seasonal firefighters have been hired by the town at a cost of about $120,000 to help the Forest Service and Eagle County take down 233 acres of dead trees on public land around town between now and mid-October. The added firefighters will also help crews respond to any local wildfires this summer.

The 2002 Hayman Fire torched 138,000 acres. (Photo/langs, Flickr)
The 2002 Hayman Fire torched 138,000 acres. (Photo/langs, Flickr)

Last season, crews in Vail cleared out about 150 acres in and around neighborhoods, burning piles of slash and contracting a helicopter to remove 6,500 dead trees on steep slopes and haul them off to be converted into pellets for wood-burning stoves.

Town officials said their goal of creating a defensible perimeter of about 200 feet all around the heavily forested mountain town will be about 40-percent complete by the end of this season. The full perimeter won’t be done until 2012.

Such efforts, going on in resort towns from Summit County to Steamboat, are a last-ditch effort to save structures and critical infrastructure from inevitable fires in the wake of a statewide beetle epidemic that started in 1996 and has killed more than 1.5 million acres of lodgepole pines over the past decade.

Local governments are partnering with the Forest Service to pool scarce federal money with state and local funds for a variety of mitigation projects.

“We’re engaged in an ongoing battle for resources,” said state Rep. Christine Scanlan, D-Dillon, who co-sponsored a forest restoration bill with state Sen. Dan Gibbs, D-Silverthorne, that secured $1 million a year for the next five years for projects like Vail’s.“Vail’s creating firebreaks in the red zone, and that’s enormously important — trying to protect homes and critical infrastructure,” said Scanlan, who noted that 12 communities took advantage of the state funds last summer, though a total of 65 applied. “We’re just trying to bring more dollars to [those projects].”

Photo slideshow by Bob Spencer.

is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy, environmental and political issues for years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He's founder of Real Vail and Real Aspen.