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Colorado town backpedals on tree-clearing order

In the small mountain town of Breckenridge, residents successfully petition against an ordinance aimed at preventing and taming wildfires.

July 30, 2009|DeeDee Correll | Correll writes for The Times.

DENVER — A Colorado ski resort town has abandoned a short-lived attempt to require residents to take steps to protect their homes from wildfire.

Town leaders in Breckenridge decided this week to revoke an ordinance ordering homeowners to thin vegetation around their houses -- a mandate that, though common in California, remains unusual in other Western states.

A mountain pine beetle epidemic that has killed thousands of acres of trees and left the mountains vulnerable to fire prompted the Town Council to pass the ordinance in June.

Fire officials said the strategy would help halt approaching fires and aid firefighters in defending homes.

But some residents in the town of about 3,500 decried the plan as an encroachment on their property rights and circulated a petition demanding its repeal. Opponents gathered more than 330 signatures, compelling the council to repeal the law or put the issue to a public vote.

Council members opted Tuesday night for the former, saying opponents had spread too much "misinformation" for them to overcome in a short time, Town Manager Tim Gagen said.

"We still believe it's necessary for public safety," he said Wednesday, adding that it was the first time he could recall residents forcing officials to overturn a law in Breckenridge, a mountain town about 80 miles west of Denver.

In addition to protesting being told what to do, opponents contended that there was little evidence the approach would be effective against a massive blaze. They objected to the expense of removing healthy trees and said the result would lower property values.

Breckenridge resident Ed Nolan, who signed the petition, said he was pleased the council decided not to resist. "People buy lots for the trees and the view. The trees are a valuable asset. Nobody wants to look at Breckenridge with no trees," he said.

Nolan added that "we're still under severe attack from the pine beetle here. The idea of cutting down the healthy trees around our house doesn't strike me as the smartest thing to do until we know how many trees we'll have left when this epidemic is over."

But Capt. Kim Scott, spokeswoman for the Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District -- which encompasses Breckenridge and promoted the ordinance -- disputed the argument that creating defensible space is ineffective in fighting wildfires.

"There's plenty of science behind it," Scott said.

She said the fire district, which has constructed a 100-to-200-foot-wide fire break northeast of the town as a safety measure, will continue a public education campaign encouraging residents to create defensible space.

"They don't understand that what you do or don't do affects your neighbors," Scott said.

She and Gagen said they hoped that most residents would voluntarily clear vegetation. Town officials also intend to discuss the issue with neighboring communities. Opponents have criticized the strategy as pointless unless other communities in the area participate.

Many state residents had followed closely the developments in Breckenridge, one of the few communities -- if not the only -- in Colorado to take such an aggressive approach.

Though California long has required residents in wildfire-prone areas to trim vegetation near their homes, other Western states generally urge voluntary action instead.

"We had a lot of people watching us," Gagen said.

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