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An aerial view of the Buffalo fire showing where the blaze was stopped by crews thanks to fire breaks installed years earlier. (Provided photo)

SUMMIT COUNTY — It wasn’t long before a wildfire that broke out near Silverthorne one morning in early June turned into a towering inferno with flames shooting several hundred feet in the air.

The fire — fed by strong wind and high summer heat — sent smoke billowing over Summit County, consuming trees as it raced toward hundreds of homes and condominiums in the Wildernest and Mesa Cortina neighborhoods.

Firefighters feared the worst as they rushed to get scores of people of its way.

“It went from zero to 80 extremely quickly,” said Jeff Berino, chief of Summit Fire and EMS.  “Once we were able to locate where it was, it really was a tactical challenge. We called it a tactical nightmare to start with because it was right between two subdivisions literally rolling down the hill.”

A helicopter battles the raging Buffalo fire near Silverthorne in June 2016. 

Normally when such a raging fire that has reached the tops, or “crowns,” of trees approaches structures, there’s not much firefighters can do. But in the case of the Buffalo fire, the flames quickly ran out of fuel and were stopped thanks to a $1 million wildfire mitigation effort that protected the subdivisions.

Flames hit a stretch of clear-cut forest and suddenly came down from the canopy where crews could battle them on the ground.

Embers licked brush and grass in the hollowed-out section of forest surrounding homes, condominiums and infrastructure valued at nearly $1 billion. But not one of the roughly 1,400 nearby structures was burned.

“There’s no doubt we would have lost the subdivisions,” Berino said during a recent tour of the charred area. “No doubt in my mind.”

Summit Fire and EMS Chief Jeff Berino surveys an area of the Buffalo fire scar where a clear cut, known as a fire break, helped crews stop the towering inferno in June. The blaze lept from the canopies of trees onto the ground and made easy-to-fight spot fires in areas like the ones to the right of Berino in this picture. “There’s no doubt we would have lost the subdivisions,” Berino said during a tour of the charred area this summer. “No doubt in my mind.” (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Over the past two decades forest managers and firefighting experts across Colorado have been working to spread the word about fire breaks and raise money to install them in high-risk areas. But for the most part the growing practice — controversial among some homeowners who don’t want to see trees cut down — had gone untested in Colorado until this summer.

Now, other neighborhoods around Summit County are seeking fire breaks of their own after seeing the success at the Buffalo fire.

But fire breaks work only in certain ecosystems, namely lodgepole pine forests that cover much of Colorado’s northern and central mountains, and they can be expensive. And then there is the community pushback, which can be one of the largest hurdles forest managers face when trying to put the breaks in place.

“There’s definitely that sentiment of, ‘I bought my house in the forest and I want my forest around it,’ ” said Ryan McNertney, with the Colorado State Forest Service.

There are signs those opinions could be changing, thanks in part to success stories like the Buffalo fire.

“Ultimately, these examples really help us to say, ‘Look, these things work. We’re not just out there cutting trees for the heck of it,’ ” McNertney said.

Fire breaks started to pop up en masse around Colorado after the 1996 Buffalo Creek fire, near Strontia Springs Reservoir in Jefferson County, as a tool for Denver Water to protect its infrastructure.

That fire burned so hot that it created perfect conditions for subsequent rainfall to send massive amounts of sediment into the body of water that is a crucial supply for the metro area.

“That was a lesson we learned,” said Christina Burri, a watershed scientist for Denver Water. “It was expensive to remove that sediment out of Strontia Springs.”

By expensive, she means $18.5 million. And effects of  sediment loading in Strontia Springs Reservoir still are being dealt with today.

After the 1996 Buffalo Creek fire, Denver Water launched a major initiative to create fire breaks around its infrastructure.

It paid off when the 2002 Hayman fire ravaged more than 100,000 acres, but structures belonging to the utility near Cheesman Reservoir were spared.

“When the fire came through, the treatments and the fire breaks and the thinning actually saved our facilities,” she said. “Our caretakers live on site and it protected their homes.”

Since then tens of thousands of acres have been clear-cut or treated as part of fire mitigation efforts by Denver Water, including a $33 million partnership with the U.S. Forest Service that helped pay for the fire break that halted the Buffalo fire in Summit County. (More money is slated to be spent by Denver Water and the Forest Service in coming years.)

Even that project north of Silverthorne that likely saved two subdivisions, however, faced blowback from homeowners.

“There was public opposition to doing this,” Berino, the Summit Fire and EMS chief, said of the Wildernest and Mesa Cortina clear-cuts. “We originally wanted to go much further.”

YouTube video
Summit Fire and EMS Chief Jeff Berino explains how a fire break helped firefighters halt the Buffalo fire this summer near Silverthorne. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Elsewhere in Summit County, where almost every home is inside the dangerous wildland-urban interface, there has been similar opposition to other fuel break projects. 

The holdup? Mountain homeowners want to own a mountain home surrounded by trees. 

“There were some outspoken critics of clear-cuts in one particular neighborhood near Breckenridge,” said Bill Jackson, the Dillon District ranger for the White River National Forest where the Buffalo fire burned. “We proposed much larger fuel breaks around this particular neighborhood — Peak 7. Because there’s such opposition to it, coordinated opposition, in our final decision we shrunk those fuel breaks to 100 feet around the backs of homes.”

Things are changing this year, however, after the Buffalo fire — which began on June 12 and burned about 80 acres — and another fire, the Golf Course fire in Granby.

In both cases, officials credited the fire breaks with their ability to knock down the flames.

And then community members began changing their minds about the fire mitigation technique.

“Now they want us to do more,” Jackson said. “We’ve gotten requests here locally. Nothing like a formal request to the forest service, but just phone calls, email inquiries about, ‘Hey can you do something in our backyard.’ ”

Officials like Jackson hope the message will continue to spread.

And there are other signs that it has.

More fire breaks are being built across the northern high country, and opposition in many places is lessening.

MORE: Five years after wildfire tore through Black Forest, is the community still at risk?

“I don’t want to create false hope that these fuel breaks will always stop wildfire,” Jackson said. “It helps. We’re not going to be able to fireproof the forest.”

Jim Lee, a community advocate for fire mitigation who lives near Frisco, in the Bill’s Ranch subdivision, said he was initially more reluctant about clear-cuts.

“With the recent experience in Wildernest and Mesa Cortina I think a lot of people are probably giving that a second look,” he said. “It’s not a popular idea at all. It’s such an emotionally charged word, and people go ballistic. I can see both sides of that, but I gotta say over the years I’ve probably evolved in my thinking, especially in an area that’s adjacent to a significant development. Maybe a clear-cut fire break makes sense.”

He added: “I think there’s a real lesson to be learned.”

Rising Sun
Trees charred by the Buffalo fire in Summit County. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)


Jesse Paul

The Colorado Sun — Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is...