Dry conditions spark wildfire concerns throughout Roaring Fork Valley
Two brush fires near Silt and Rifle in past week
The Aspen Times
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
TO LEARN MORE
The Pitkin County Emergency Management office has extensive information online for creating defensible space around homes and property, protecting your family and protecting your home at www.pitkinwildfire.com.
The Colorado State Forest Service has extensive online material on wildfire preparedness and mitigation at www.colorado.gov/pacific/dfpc/fire-preparedness-and-mitigation.
Firefighters and emergency managers in the Roaring Fork Valley are increasingly concerned about the approaching wildfire season because of the low snowpack level and high drought rating.
“Early and scary” is how Glenwood Springs Fire Chief Gary Tillotson describes it.
“All of the long-range forecasts, all the way through September, are reporting above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation,” he said. “Already, the vegetation on the valley floors has really low moisture content, and there’s not a lot of snowpack up high.”
Major wildfires have hit the lower Roaring Fork Valley as early as April in past years, and Garfield County has a history of devastating fires during the heat of summer.
The Catherine fire in April 2008 swept from ranchlands along County Road 100 east of Carbondale to Catherine Store in no time, posing risk to 150 homes in the bottomlands, closing Highway 82 and threatening to run up into Missouri Heights.
The South Canyon Fire outside of Glenwood Springs, also known as the Storm King Fire, killed 14 wildland firefighters in July 1994. The Coal Seam Fire in June 2002 burned 29 homes in West Glenwood Springs. Also that summer, the Panorama fire in Missouri Heights scorched 1,500 acres, destroyed two houses, damaged two others and forced evacuations.
The Red Canyon Fire just south and east of Glenwood Springs in August of 2013 also forced evacuations, and for a time threatened the eastern edge of town.
“We will try to have at least one community awareness meeting in the next few weeks to try to promote homeowner work to make homes more resistant,” Tillotson said.
“Even if you live in downtown Glenwood, if there are embers in the air they can land in your yard or on your roof,” he said. “It can be as simple as cleaning the gutters on your house this spring to make sure there aren’t any dry leaves in there.”
Even fire protection officials in the upper reaches of the Roaring Fork Valley are on early alert.
Pitkin County held a meeting last week with representatives of the 11 neighborhood caucuses to urge them to get homeowners to take wildfire mitigation seriously on their property.
“We need all residents to take personal responsibility,” said Valerie MacDonald, Pitkin County emergency manager. “Government alone cannot do this.”
She is particularly concerned because there is “a public that is unaware and unprepared to deal with a wildfire” in the upper valley with rare exceptions.
Landowners in mountain settings often erroneously think they will be urged to rip down a bunch of timber and turn their beautiful retreats into barren sites, MacDonald said. That’s not the case, she said.
There are several inexpensive mitigation steps homeowners can take to slow or stop a wildfire advancing on their property and steps to “harden” their homes against common wildfire threats, she said.
“If your emergency plan is to call 911,” MacDonald said, “you need to do more.”
Basalt-Snowmass Village Fire Chief Scott Thompson said he remains hopeful that the weather will turn around and moisture levels will soar.
Right now it is not looking so good. The snowpack in the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River is at 65 percent of normal.
The U.S. Drought Monitor’s latest state assessment March 13 showed the entire Roaring Fork Valley in “severe drought.” East of Aspen to the Continental Divide is considered in moderate drought.
The worst scenario is for trees to become so dry they get stressed, Thompson said.
“We have a decadent, diseased forest all around us,” he said. “Someday we’re going to have the big one.”
Kamie Long, supervisory forester for the Grand Junction field office of the Colorado State Forest Service, helps prepare Roaring Fork Valley groups for wildfire.
There is incredible diversity in the forest types and the elevations in the Roaring Fork Valley, she said. The higher elevation forests of Aspen and surrounding areas don’t experience wildfire as often “but when it burns, it really burns,” Long said.
Her primary message to rural landowners is that they cannot depend on the fire department to arrive in time to save their home in case of a wildfire, so they must take easy steps to improve the defensible space.
Pitkin County has several neighborhoods with heavily wooded small lots, she noted. There is no rule that homeowners have to take action on wildfire mitigation, but the neighborhood only benefits if all people do it.
Larger lots that are typically harder to access need to make sure there is defensible space on the subdivision roads and driveways or firefighters won’t even consider trying to protect their homes.
Pitkin County Emergency Management has developed a curbside chipping program and partnered with the fire districts to remove brush from areas in the county to reduce wildfire risk, MacDonald said.
Fire departments throughout the Roaring Fork Valley will give free consultations to property owners on wildfire mitigation. It is the responsibility of the residents to follow through on the recommendations themselves or hire a contractor. Thompson said he has witnessed greater interest among residents. In some cases, insurance companies threaten to cancel policies if mitigation steps are not taken.
“We don’t want people to clear-cut, but we want their yards to look like parks,” Thompson said.
Thompson and John Mele, deputy chief of fire prevention and fire marshal at Snowmass Village, brokered an agreement with the Basalt town government earlier this month to undertake a mitigation project to try to lead by example with citizens. They are trying to secure a grant or find another way to thin vegetation on a thickly wooded hillside above Town Hall to serve as a demonstration project.
Councilwoman Katie Schwoerer said homeowner engagement for wildfire mitigation shouldn’t be a problem in the Roaring Fork Valley after people saw the destruction of the California coastal fires in December, mostly in areas that thought they were immune.
“I think everybody is scared to death that could happen here,” Schwoerer said.
The biggest concern is where forested areas or even grassland meadows come into contact with subdivisions — an area known as the wildland urban interface.
“How do we get wildfires in subdivisions like this? It’s ember showers,” Mele said.
Wildfires are typically driven by high winds that whip literal showers of embers far down wind.
“A mile is not unheard of for embers to fly and houses to burn,” Thompson said.
Homeowners who don’t feel they are in immediate harm watch as embers suddenly catch debris under decks or in gutters on fire. Cedar fences prove to be an easy way for fire to spread from house to house.
Fire prevention stresses the “hardening” of houses by clearing gutters, keeping tree limbs off roofs and walls and using non-flammable roofing material.
Long said the state forest service shares the goal with fire districts to get residents interested in helping themselves.
“I don’t want to scare you,” she said. “I want to empower you.”