Using fire to battle mosquitoes in the North Fork

By Tamie Meck


For North Fork Mosquito Abatement District operations manager Chris Tschinkel, it's never too early to start battling mosquitoes. Each year, the district learns something new in the war on what's been called the most deadly animal on the planet.

The mosquito abatement district encompasses roughly 50 square miles of the North Fork area, which is host to five species of mosquito, two of which are known to transmit West Nile Virus to humans and animals. Because of the mosquitoes' threat to public safety, there is always an urgency in the need to reduce mosquito breeding grounds.

On Sunday, Jan. 21, the district took its first mosquito mitigation steps of the new year when it partnered with the Hotchkiss Fire District to burn two parcels of overgrown cattail marshes in the Hotchkiss area.

The control burns reduced mosquito habitat, and also provided training for volunteer firefighters. It was their first opportunity this year to train on an actual fire, said Fire Chief Doug Fritz. "We're taking advantage of the incredibly dry winter to burn." And while the marshes don't present an eminent fire danger, "It's our duty to protect life and property," said Fritz. "This is useful in protecting life."

One fact about mosquitoes: they prefer to breed in warm, shallow water, explained Tschinkel. When cattails dominate a wetland, dense vegetation prevents water evaporation and runoff. The water warms and becomes stagnate, making it ideal for mosquito breeding. The dense vegetation prevents larvicides and other products used in treating marshes from reaching water level, rendering treatment efforts largely ineffective. That results in the need for more products, more staff time, and more money.

About four years ago a large area of marsh in the Hotchkiss area was burned, resulting in significant reduction in larvae and mosquito trappings in the area. Tschinkel said the burn has saved the NFMAD an estimated $2,000.

A wildfire that occurred last April near Clock Road in Paonia burned a swath of overgrown cattails marshes near the North Fork of the Gunnison River while revealing helpful information for the mosquito district. The marsh was one of the worst breeding grounds in the area, said Tschinkel. The fire cleared the vegetation, revealing an historic irrigation ditch that was clogged with vegetation. Once the ditch was cleared out and the water allowed to properly flow through the area, there was a marked decrease in mosquito populations in the neighborhood.

The burns are the first steps the NFMAD is taking to reduce mosquito populations in 2018, said Tschinkel. The district would like to work with other communities in reducing habitat through control burns and restoration of drainage to area marshes.

The efforts could also result in collaborations with other agencies, including with the U.S. Forest Service, said Fritz.

NFMAD staff will begin its seasonal work in April. More information can be found at nfmad.org and on the North Fork Mosquito Abatement District Facebook page.