New tool for wildfire mitigation being used on Pikes Peak

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TELLER COUNTY, Colo. – Colorado Springs Utilities is using new technology to reduce the number of dead, dying or diseased trees on the north slope of Pikes Peak. Crews can now access steep forested areas they otherwise couldn’t treat for wildfire mitigation.

Miller Timber Service, based out of Oregon, is working with local foresters to thin out a 35-acre part of the forest above North Catamount Reservoir. The project is also will create a fire break in the event of a wildfire and serve as a secondary containment feature for future prescribed burns.

Miller Timber Service is helping change the game for wildfire mitigation efforts in Colorado with their harvester machines. The 8-wheeled machines are linked to computer technology that maneuvers through densely forest areas, clinging to steep terrain and laying cut trees in rows for easier pick-up.

This unique harvesting system was utilized on the recently concluded Monarch Pass project to reduce the fuel load created by beetle-killed trees. The project on the north slope of Pikes Peak is the second time these unique machines have been used in Colorado.

“With this new equipment, it’s a lot more effective in how we can come in and remove the timber and get the biomass out,” said Eric Howell, Forest Program Manager with Colorado Springs Utilities. “The work we’re doing will also provide a nice fire break. It’s also getting rid of a lot of dead trees in this area. The spruce bugworm has been really bad up here.”

“It allows us to reach around things, grab it and pull out what we need. We don’t have to drive to every tree like other pieces of equipment have to do,” said Matthew Mattioda with Miller Timber Services. “It reaches out grabs a tree, cuts the tree down. It pulls it back to the center and as it does that these knives clothes on that tree and pulls the tree through, takes the limbs off, and at the same time it’s measuring the length and diameter of the tree.”

Crews are able to access areas they couldn’t previously get to for thinning and prepping forests to minimize impacts from future fires. Before these machines, mitigation crews were mostly limited to working on 30% grade slopes.

“Before it was stuck to relatively flat ground, but with the advances in the technology we can now run these machines on slopes 85 up to 90% to effectively and safely do our work,” said Mattioda.

The main goal is protecting the forests around North Catamount Reservoir from the effects a fire could have on our drinking water. This is one of the water supply systems for Colorado Springs Utilities.

“Our overall objective is always to protect our water supply and our infrastructure so that we can have a sustainable, safe water supply to deliver to our customer,” said Howell. “Fires in these areas that we have not able to treat which could be substantial post-fire impacts with flooding and sedimentation getting into the reservoir. And that’s going to disrupt our water treatment processes.”

The arms stretch out 32 feet from the center, cutting trees precisely without impacting healthy ones. And the machines aren’t causing erosion as they trek through forests. And with less boots on the ground, it’s safer for crews.

“We get people off the ground off where the hazards are using chainsaws and we put them in equipment. They’re very protected and it reduces the risk to those employees from injury,” said Mattioda.

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