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By Bill Trimarco
Special to The SUN
Seeing that first frost really awakens the procrastinator in me. It’s time to get firewood.
Living here in Pagosa Country, there are lots of choices of how to do that. I can buy cut and split wood and have it delivered. I can get a permit and harvest firewood from our abundant public lands.
An often overlooked alternative is to use firewood gathering to create defensible space around a home, either mine or someone else’s.
Most of us tend to forget about the threat of wildfire as soon as the smoke begins to clear and life forces some newer drama or crisis upon us. The reality is that the threat is always there, even if it’s waiting under a blanket of snow for the next opportunity to dry out and capture an errant spark or lightning bolt.
Creating defensible space around a home or other structure is a good way to kill two birds with one stone.
It requires a slightly different mindset than just firewood gathering if you want to accomplish this. There will probably be some green trees that need to be removed, so just think of them as being the start of next year’s firewood. Also, before you throw all those limbs into a slash pile or chipper, remember that a lot of them will burn quite well and don’t require splitting.
The Colorado State Forest Service divides defensible space into zones that encircle the structure you wish to protect.
Zone 1 is the most crucial and goes out 15 feet from the structure. The first three to five feet out shouldn’t have anything flammable, like woodchips or ornamental junipers or piles of pine needles or anything else that can burn alongside your home or under the deck. Ideally, all trees should be removed within Zone 1. If there is one that you really feel you must keep, treat it as part of the structure and extend the boundaries of your first zone accordingly. Trees remaining in this zone should be pruned up at least 10 feet to remove a ladder for fire to climb into the tree crowns.
Zone 2 typically extends 75 to 125 feet out from the structure. This is an area of fuels reduction. Remove shrubs from under tree crowns and prune trees as necessary. Junipers are extremely flammable and often grow alongside or under other trees, in which case they should be removed. If a wildfire enters this zone, you don’t want it to find ladders into the crowns. Try to thin the trees to provide 10 feet of clearance between tree crowns. Any work you do in this zone can reduce the intensity of wildfire should it approach your home.
Zone 3 extends from the outside of Zone 2, to the property boundary. Traditional healthy forest practices are the norm here. Economic factors usually limit thinning and pruning to less than what was done in Zone 2, but the same guidelines can be used.
What we so often forget is that most of the forest we see around here is not historically healthy forest. Much of it is overcrowded and stunted due to insufficient moisture to support the overcrowded forest.
Before the settlers of the 1800s arrived here, a sustainable Ponderosa forest had about 50 trees per acre with a minimum of undergrowth due to frequent low intensity fires. Many areas now have 300 trees per acre. At that density we may never see the big yellow jack pines that awed those early settlers. If we try to protect every tree on our land, we really aren’t helping to grow a healthy and beautiful forest. Since wildfire no longer manages the forest for us, we can use wildfire mitigation to accomplish similar results.
If you don’t have enough land of your own to provide firewood through mitigation, you probably know someone who would be happy to have their land improved. Likewise, many people with land don’t burn firewood, but could really benefit from some thinning.
Colorado State Forest Service and FireWise of Southwest Colorado can offer plenty of advice and help. In Archuleta County, contact Bill Trimarco at 264-0430, or firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.