In early June, Colorado Parks and Wildlife released recommendations by a local citizen’s task force on operations and safety at the gun range at the Basalt State Wildlife Area, located on the hill above Basalt.
Creating a greenbelt area surrounding the range was one of the main safety recommendations that came out of the task force’s deliberations. The task force formed in the wake of the Lake Christine Fire, which started July 3, 2018.
In early July, Stacey Craft, one of the task force’s six members, wrote an editorial calling into question CPW’s formation of the group, its process and some of the recommendations. In particular, Craft asked just how effective the greenbelt will be. In her opinion, no “wildland expert” was provided to the task force.
Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Authority’s Chief Scott Thompson met with the task force and was the one to recommend the greenbelt concept. Thompson said this week he takes issue with the statement that no expert was provided to the task force, noting his 40 years of fighting wildland fires across the United States. Thompson has been chief in the Mid-Valley for 20 years.
“The barren ground is a poor fire stop,” explains Chief Thompson. “What I am proposing is an irrigated, 30-foot wide greenbelt. Wherever you create that would exclude fire from coming down the mountain onto the range or, like what has happened twice, starting in the range and spreading up the mountain.”
According to Thompson, a deciduous type of plant (anything that loses leaves) holds a lot of moisture. As the firebrands (pieces of burning wood) hit the greenbelt and those deciduous plants, it catches and stops those embers because of the moisture in those plants or grasses, and the fire is stopped.
Pointing to the hay fields above the left side of the gun range, Thompson notes that these green fields did not burn in the 2018 fire.
Creating the greenbelt
Greenbelts are a common fire mitigation concept. Recently, Thompson’s fire company created a greenbelt around a condominium project in the hills above Basalt to increase their fire safety.
In addition to questioning the effectiveness of the greenbelt concept, Basalt resident Craft also questioned whether or not CPW “performed due diligence in formulating this plan” and whether or not there is “access to adequate irrigation.”
Providing water for irrigation does seem to be an issue in moving forward with the greenbelt concept.
“I know that they water their hay fields, but there is an issue with water rights and it’s very complex,” says Thompson. “If they use water to water that range, it will make their water rights more minor, so they have to somehow get water. But, we could hook to a hydrant in the Wilds and run a pipe across to the range. I just don't think that’s insurmountable.”
CPW District Wildlife Manager Matt Yamashita agrees.
“We are going to have to coordinate with the town of Basalt for irrigation purposes to tie into their water lines coming from the Wilds,” confirms Yamashita.
While both CPW Manager Yamashita and Chief Thompson agree that the greenbelt concept will provide increased safety at the range, they do offer different ideas on how to carry out creating that greenbelt.
It is Chief Thompson’s recommendation that the range be surrounded by the greenbelt concept and that the new dirt berms created on the backside of the shooting ranges be irrigated and seeded.
According to Yamashita, a slightly different plan is being implemented.
“I am currently working with Holy Cross Energy,” says Yamashita. “They will be putting in an access road to get to their power line on the backside of the range. They have tweaked their plan so that it will work with the greenbelt concept Chief Thompson suggested. The service road is only for maintenance and is not going to be utilized on a regular basis. It doesn’t have to be a dirt road, so we are going to come in and use some of our seed mixes and vegetate that road and create that greenbelt,” he says.
According to Yamashita, since the task force meeting at Basalt High School in June, several recommendations have been implemented at the range and more are in process this summer and next winter.
“Since the meeting, we have gone through and have used chemicals to kill off vegetation on the shooting range,” Yamashita says. “We have started laying some of the road mill (on the ground between where shooters fire and the targets). Signs are in the process of being ordered. They have to design the signs, and then get it back to us for approval.”
While a lack of signage that includes all rules that need to be followed at the range has been criticized by the general public and in news stories, Yamashita points out that there were signs inside the shooting facilities at the range last July 3 which listed prohibited uses at the range, including firing explosive rounds.
In May, a judge in the trial of Richard Miller and Allison Marcus, the two individuals charged with starting last year’s fire, ruled that there was “confusion” over the signage that was in place when the fire broke out.
As a result, CPW removed those signs and is currently replacing them with far more detailed signs. Since the fire, the Roaring Fork Sportsman’s Association in cooperation with CPW, have created green brochures listing “standard operating use and procedures” at the range. The second safety rule is listed:
“Exploding, incendiary, tracer, armor piercing or any other similar type of target or ammunition is STRICTLY PROHIBITED.”
In speaking with Chief Thompson, it’s not the rules but “accountability” that will keep the range safe.
“You go up there and put an exploding target because you don’t see that it’s written in the rules, and you shoot the target, and it explodes and starts a fire,” explains Thompson. “Are you still responsible? They are burning a bullet that gets 1,400 degrees because it’s got sulfur on it. That’s what makes it light at night. I can’t imagine why you would use it during the day. Is that person accountable for their actions? I believe so.”
Hydrants on the range
In terms of the task force’s discussions about water, Thompson does not think that fire hydrants at the range are necessary because their main task would be to help fill fire trucks. In reality, ground crews use very little water in a wildland fire. Building breaks, digging lines and burning fuel back toward the fire are the main ways those fires are extinguished.
While fire extinguishers have been damaged or stolen from the range in the past, Yamashita points out that two extinguishers are currently in each shooting shed at the range.
Will the greenbelt concept and other task force recommendations really increase the safety of the range and the safety of downtown Basalt from a future wildland fire at the range?
According to Chief Thompson, it depends on how the greenbelt concept and other recommendations are enacted.
After the 2012 fire at the range, Basalt Fire recommended that a break be cut and irrigated, but lack of funding prevented the irrigation plans going forward; the break area burned in 2018 spreading the fire.
CPW plans to have staff onsite at the range later in July to begin clearing up to 75 yards behind the dirt berms, cutting all the trees that are partially burned or remaining as potential fuel sources. This winter, CPW will work with Basalt Fire to burn those piles of collected trees.
The other major safety feature from the task force’s recommendations was the hiring of a range safety officer. That job has been posted and applicants are currently being assessed. After hiring, the new officer will undergo a range safety officer course in Cameo, and then begin work in Basalt. The new officer will be onsite during public hours until November, and then return next spring.