DURANGO — A year ago on May 17, it wasn’t an act of God or luck that helped hold back an encroaching wildfire from a small subdivision and a primary water source in southwestern Colorado. It was careful, advance planning.
When the Plumtaw fire grew rapidly to about 700 acres just 7 miles north of Pagosa Springs, fire responders knew they already had a stretch of land — cleared of underbrush and next to a road — where they could push the flames away from the subdivision and water ditch. The fuel break, completed in 2021, was strategically located for that exact purpose.
This month, the federal government announced it is sending $46.7 million, from trillion- and multibillion-dollar packages passed in 2021 and 2022, to Colorado to fund similar fuel breaks around the state. A $13 million chunk of that funding is landing right back in southwestern Colorado, where the U.S. Forest Service and its local, state, tribal and federal partners in other sectors are primed to use it in high-risk areas.
“(The Plumtaw fire) is a very good example of where … strategic fuel breaks in real life have a direct impact on saving a watershed,” said Jason Lawhon, the Forest Service’s shared stewardship program manager for the San Juan National Forest.
North of Pagosa Springs in Archuleta County, the 2021 fuel break project cleared shrubs and small trees across about 100 acres in a narrow, 25-foot-wide strip along Fourmile Road. During wildfires, similar undergrowth can act like a ladder and carry flames higher into tree canopies, which helps the fire spread.
Clearing it away from roads, rivers and other landscape features helps slow down wildfires, reinforces existing barriers and enlarges the buffer zone. Wildland crews use these fuel breaks as safe spaces to work while battling fires or assisting with prescribed burns.
On May 4, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack visited Durango, roughly an hour west of Pagosa Springs, to announce a total of $63 million for fuel breaks from the $1 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, passed in 2021, and the $700 billion Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which reflect a historic amount of investment, he said. The funds will go to Colorado, Montana, Oregon, South Dakota and Wyoming.
The projects focus on high-risk areas identified by Native American tribes, local fire management agencies, businesses, elected officials and scientists. The federal government said the projects will help fire crews respond to wildfires while protecting critical infrastructure, ensuring clean drinking water and supporting local timber industries, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture news release.
“I’m afraid to say that for many, many years, the federal government was inadequately investing in our forest system. As a result of that, over time, significant risks have occurred,” Vilsack said in Durango. “We are very, very interested in reducing that risk. Fortunately for the first time in a long time, Congress has seen fit to provide resources under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act.”
Treating wildfires in Colorado
A combination of climate change and human factors — including the proliferation of homes where fires are difficult to control — has led to a longer fire season and costlier, more destructive wildfires. Colorado and other states in the Colorado River Basin, which supplies water to 40 million people across the West, are enduring a 23-year drought, which research indicates is the worst in 1,200 years.
Work is happening across the state, but treatments are not at the pace and scale needed to match the size and impacts of wildfires today, Lawhon said. For example, in ponderosa pine forests land managers should treat 20% to 40% of the entire watershed before post-fire impacts, like sedimentation and soil degradation, are less severe.
“To my knowledge, there’s not a large watershed anywhere really in Colorado that I would say, ‘Yeah, they’ve treated that to a level that it’s resilient for the next wildfire,’” Lawhon said, adding that some areas are nearing that 20% mark. “That’s a goal that we’re working towards.”
Colorado’s $46.7 million will be split between national forests and grasslands around the state.
Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests will receive the majority of the funds: around $20.8 million for 47 projects. The Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests, which spans Colorado and Wyoming, and Thunder Basin National Grassland in northeastern Wyoming will receive about $3.1 million for 31 projects. San Juan National Forest will use its $13.1 million to prepare 150,000 acres of land for prescribed burns by thinning trees and underbrush to reduce fuels.
The Forest Service and its partners have mapped out high-risk and high-priority areas across watersheds to determine where and how to do prescribed burns, fuel breaks and other mitigation projects.
That’s what the San Juan Headwaters Forest Health Partnership, a collection of land managers, government officials and community partners working across sectors and jurisdictions, was discussing during a 2018 tour along Fourmile Road.
The group mapped out vegetation types, terrain and the locations of roads, rivers and rocky turf — the same process used throughout San Juan National Forest and some nearby lands to identify areas where crews would have the best chance of containing a potential fire, called potential operational delineations, or PODs.
“You get all the fire experts in a room and say, ‘Hey, we don’t have a fire now, but if we hypothetically had fires all over this landscape, piece by piece, where would you start?’” Lawhon said.
Lost Valley of the San Juans, a small subdivision near the border of Archuleta and Mineral counties, sits on Fourmile Road about 3 miles north of a head gate that connects Fourmile Creek to Dutton Ditch. The ditch is one of three primary water sources for Pagosa Springs before the water flows into the San Juan River and connects to the Colorado River Basin system.
“In terms of municipal water, (Fourmile Watershed) is the largest source for our tap water that comes into our homes,” said Dana Guinn, a Pagosa Springs resident and coordinator of the San Juan Headwaters Forest Health Partnership.
Creating a wider fuel break by clearing undergrowth along the west side of Fourmile Road between the fixtures could be vital. If a fire were to leap east of the road, it would reach a roadless drainage area offering little access and no containment options for miles, said Fred Ellis, the Pagosa Ranger District assistant fire management officer.
Sediment loosened by a wildfire could bury the head gate and make it temporarily unusable, Guinn said. Then more sediment could flow downstream and cause problems for water treatment for years, potentially leading to increased treatment costs. In certain circumstances, water managers would be forced to draw more heavily from other sources, like the West Fork of the San Juan River, which was impacted by the West Fork fire in 2013.
“They have their system set to work as optimally as they can, and there’s redundancies in it,” Guinn said, “but at some point if all your watersheds are impacted by wildfire and you don’t have a good way to manage it, then you’re talking about a serious issue with municipal water supply.”
An “invisible success” in Archuleta County
In 2019, fire experts mapped the Fourmile watershed establishing it as an official POD and noting potential control features and response plans. In 2021, the fuel break project was completed, and in 2022, the partners and community members realized just how helpful the project was.
In spring 2022, southwestern Colorado was in a prolonged drought, and steady snowfall early in the winter had slowed significantly by March. That May, conditions were dry and windy, and early in the afternoon of May 17, the Plumtaw fire ignited and quickly grew to more than 400 acres within the day.
Fire managers ramped up their response, pulling in air tankers, helicopters, ground crews, dozers and fire engines, said Ellis, who helped lead the fire response. Wind blew the fire toward the Lost Valley subdivision, and residents were ordered to leave their homes.
Crews used the fuel break as an anchor where they could remove unburned fuel between the fire’s edge and the containment line along Fourmile Road to keep it from jumping across the road. The fire came within a mile of the head gate, he said.
“Could we have pulled this off without having done the (fuel break) work? Probably, but it would’ve been much more difficult, and we probably would have gotten a number of little spot fires on the other side of the road,” Ellis said. “All it takes is one of them that we don’t find, for whatever reason, to wake up when it’s windy and we have a whole different scenario.”
The Plumtaw fire grew for three days, without any loss of lives or homes, and wasn’t considered officially contained until monsoon rains fell in early June.
On the first anniversary of the fire, the fuel break project was an important “invisible success,” said Guinn, who helped put together a documentary about the fire for the headwaters partnership. The fact that a community group identified it as a way to protect municipal water supply — and that the Forest Service jumped in to partner on the project — was significant, she said.
“This fire could have turned into something that was a much more challenging event for our community down the line,” Guinn said. “But because we had done some pre-planning, and a variety of other factors came together, we were able to be prepared as a community and help our emergency responders help us.”
With the influx of funding, other fire mitigation and fuel break projects are set to start as soon as this summer, said the Forest Service’s Lawhon. From Dolores to Pagosa Springs, no watersheds that the San Juan National Forest works in are owned by a single entity. The POD units, which have been mapped across the region, break the landscape into manageable chunks and help agencies work across complex jurisdictional boundaries.
It’s a whole-system approach that could make a significant difference in how effectively communities prepare for an increasingly long and intense wildfire season, Lawhon said.
“You have to do this cross-boundary, multipartner approach, or you won’t be successful,” he said.