Josh Bobst, left, and Justin Decaneva, right, seen here on April 26, 2023, are both certified wildland firefighters, meaning their thinning work could provide them a fire break they rely on while fighting a future wildfire. Credit: Tim Drugan

On Shanahan Ridge in South Boulder, trees are coming down in an 80-acre swath that runs along the South Fork Shanahan Trail. With a focus on protecting the water tank that sits just off the trail and holds city drinking water, the project — like all thinning projects near Boulder — is trying to mimic the low-intensity fires that historically burned Ponderosa Pine forests every decade. 

This reduces the risk of intense wildfire and allows plants that naturally grow in the area to be closer to their ideal growing conditions.

“This is all for bringing things back to historical standards,” said Justin Decaneva, an assistant crew lead for the forestry crew. While such thinning promotes a healthier forest, Decaneva added the mitigation also aims to protect Boulder residents — especially those living in the Shanahan area.

Justin Decaneva, an assistant crew lead for the Open Space and Mountain Parks forestry crew. Decaneva came from Illinois a few years ago where he used fewer chainsaws and more herbicide. “I love this job,” he said on April 26, 2023. Credit: Tim Drugan

Decaneva’s work also benefits him. All members of the forestry crew are “red carded,” meaning they’re qualified to fight wildfire when one pops up near town. By thinning out the City of Boulder’s forests, Decaneva and his crew are also aiding their future fights against wildfire.

“It’s nice putting in the work now so if something does pop off, we know this area is mitigated,” Decaneva said. “When we space out these trees we know nothing is going to get up into the canopy and cause a huge crown fire. Those we can’t really fight.”

Last year, the NCAR fire burned up into an area where Decaneva and the forestry crew had recently thinned. This allowed them to quickly establish a fire break and keep flames from getting out of hand.

The forestry crew is in the felling stage. Clean up will follow. Credit: Tim Drugan

Josh Bobst, a crew lead, said that especially when compared to last year, this spring has been nice and slow in terms of wildfire, letting the crew focus on thinning projects.

“Last year we were runnin’ and gunnin’ already,” he said. “This year is kind of relaxing. We’re able to ease into the job.”

Thanks to a wet spring, vegetation is “greening up” and less likely to burn. But Bobst said the same moisture that’s making for an easy start to the year, come fall “it could bite us in the butt.”

When a wet spring is followed by a hot and dry summer, vegetation that grew with vigor dries out, leaving a bank of fuel on the landscape that only needs an unfortunate lightning strike, a careless match or even less to become a catastrophe.

The limbs of cut trees are put through a wood chipper and sprayed back on the landscape. The trunks are brought to a wood lot near the South Boulder Creek Trailhead where they’re available to Boulderites for a small fee. Credit: Tim Drugan

But Bobst said he and his team are still optimistic about this year, a feeling helped by the improvement in public perception around thinning projects. Two years ago, when Bobst first started with the city, he said residents would complain about the forestry crew cutting down their trees and taking away their shade. But now “people will walk by and give us thumbs up,” he said. 

Tim Drugan is the climate and environment reporter for Boulder Reporting Lab, covering wildfires, water and other climate-related issues for Boulder with a focus on explanatory and solutions journalism. He also is the lead writer of BRL Today, our morning newsletter. Tim grew up in New Hampshire and graduated from UNH with a degree in English/Journalism. Email: tim@boulderreportinglab.org.

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