November 30, 2013 Updated: December 1, 2013 at 9:35 am
With thousands of blackened trees covering acre after acre in Black Forest, residents and county officials have developed a sense of urgency to remove the stands and begin healing the area north of Colorado Springs.
"There is this giant emotional issue," said Robb Willes, a Black Forest native who watched trees surrounding his property get scorched during the Black Forest fire that began June 11, burned more than 14,000 acres, killed two people and destroyed nearly 500 homes.
"People have been moving to places where there are trees," Willes said, noting that the reason people live in Black Forest is for the forest.
The urgent agenda, however, was pushed back for at least a few more weeks as more questions than answers were left over after a El Paso County Board of Commissioners meeting last week.
The board was expected to approve a contract to hire True North Emergency Management. The company from Texas will monitor, evaluate and manage the hazard tree removal on county property in Black Forest if hired.
Residents of northern El Paso County spoke up at the meeting and in previous weeks, airing concerns about the effort, prompting the commissioners Tuesday to postpone a decision on the $394,575 contract until a work session can be held to hear more public comment about the job. Eileen Gonzalez of the county's contracts and procurement department said the county will be responsible for 25 percent or about $98,000 of the contract if it's approved. The rest would come from a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Willes and Judy von Ahlefeldt have been among the more vocal Black Forest residents raising concerns about the county's removal of hazard trees from parks and rights-of-way near county roads.
Willes, who was born and raised in northern El Paso County, was working for Black Forest Together but relinquished his involvement to help a contractor who hopes to be a part of the tree removal effort. Ahlefeldt , the editor for The Black Forest News, has also been working with Black Forest Together on the fire recovery work.
Both worry that the county is not fully considering cost and environmental issues.
Alhlefeldt argued before the board Tuesday. While the county has established the cost to hire True North Emergency Management, she is concerned that the actual tree-removal work could cost more than the county expects and exceed grant money from FEMA.
The county has a deadline of Jan. 30, 2014 to have an overseer and contractors in place in order to receive the grant money. Jim Reid, director of the county's public services department, said the county needs to hit that deadline or, "We're done. We cannot ask for an extension," he said.
Ahlefeldt also believes that the use of large machinery to clear hazard trees could damage the landscape and jeopardize revegetation. She said Tuesday and in a recent Black Forest News article that such machines as feller-bunchers and processors would not only tear up the ground but would clear everything, including sticks and branches that should be left to sustain a healthy forest floor.
Willes disagrees. He said the large machines with rubber tires would help till the ground that has about two inches of damaged soil on top from the blaze. The mixing of the good and bad soils, he said, would actually encourage future growth.
Willes also said that the use of machinery would help keep costs down. In his work with a contractor from Salida, Willes has determined that clearing an acre of hazard trees with machines would cost slightly more than $1,500 per acre while using hand crews could cost up to $14,000 per acre.
Ahlefeldt echoed those numbers in her Nov. 7 Black Forest News article.
Larry Long, the Colorado State forester with the Woodland Park District, agrees with Willes on both the soil issues and the cost.
"You've got less people on the ground (with machines)," Long said." It tends to be a lot cheaper."
Long also said he recommends using a feller-buncher to do the work because there is less chance of dropping trees where they could damage more ground, structures and people.
"You'd have total control of the trees at all times," he said. "With hand crews you don't. You're going by the skill of the cutter."
These concerns and a misunderstanding of the scope and funding of the project are the main reasons deciding on True North's contract has been postponed, said county administrator Jeff Greene.
"The citizens of Black Forest do not clearly understand," Greene said before recommending the work session to the commissioners on Tuesday.
The work session and opportunity for the public to weigh in will be held Dec. 17 at the Board of County Commissioners' regular meeting. The meeting begins at 9 a.m. and will be at Centennial Hall in downtown Colorado Springs.
The Dec. 18 Black Forest Long-Term Recovery meeting will also focus on hazard tree removal. That session will be from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the El Paso County Charles "Chuck" Brown Transportation and Environmental Complex, 3275 Akers Dr.
The commissioners will make their decision about the True North contract on Dec. 31. After that a committee will review a list of potential contractors who responded to a Request For Proposal that was due Nov. 20. If True North is hired, its officials will be part of that committee.
Reid, Greene and the commissioners agreed that rushing through the process would be irresponsible and jeopardize public safety.
"Hazard tree removal is just that, trying to avoid hazards," Reid said. "Public safety is the biggest issue."