Guest opinion: Smart step toward wildfire and evacuation safety
Keeping our families safe during wildfire season is a top priority for all of us here in Garfield County. Let’s build on that common ground and work together to get some additional safety measures adopted. Given our current situation of major traffic issues combined with wildfire danger, the time to act is now.
In addition to the everyday congestion on I-70 and Colorado Highway 82, in recent weeks we’ve also experienced traffic jams and highway closures due to accidents, mudslides and flash flood warnings. If a wildfire were to occur in the midst of these traffic issues, evacuating could be extremely challenging.
There are so many different entities responsible for wildfire safety and related traffic concerns that it’s easy for each entity to pass the buck. As a result, our county seems to be continuously reacting to problems as they arise, rather than proactively working toward long-term solutions.
Other counties have gotten past this kind of “pass the buck” predicament by forming a countywide wildfire council. Summit County is one of the most proactive counties in the state when it comes to addressing wildfire and evacuation safety. They formed the Summit County Wildfire Council in 2006, including representatives from eight different government entities.
Over the past 15 years, Summit County has found that this formalized structure for regular communication and collaboration has enabled their county to develop much more effective wildfire prevention and planning efforts.
Countywide wildfire councils also provide an easy way for the public to stay apprised of the county’s plans. The Summit County Wildfire Council meetings are public; agendas and minutes are posted on the county website. At the end of each year, the council publishes an annual “wrap up,” summarizing the council’s accomplishments from the previous year and plans for the upcoming year.
In Garfield County, there is no simple way to learn about wildfire planning and prevention efforts. The county commissioners have responded to questions about wildfire safety plans by referring the public to the county’s Emergency Operations Plan and Wildland Fire Operating Plan. Both documents are very general, primarily describing command structures and procedures that could apply to almost any county in western Colorado. Neither plan provides meaningful guidance to families who would like to plan ahead for a possible emergency evacuation.
Our community is hungry for information related to the specific challenges we face here in Garfield County given our geography, population growth and huge number of commuters. What’s being done to keep semis and large RVs off of Cottonwood Pass? Why doesn’t the Garfield County Sheriff patrol the west end of Cottonwood Pass as the Eagle County Sheriff does on the east end? Is there any plan to address the lack of signage on evacuation routes? Are there plans to address the frequent congestion in places like South Canyon?
Sheriff Lou Vallario is the fire warden of our county. In the event of a wildfire, he is responsible for coordinating and controlling evacuation efforts. We urge the sheriff to form a Garfield County Wildfire Council as soon as possible in order to develop more effective prevention, planning and public communication around the issue of wildfires and evacuations.
In addition, Summit County commissioners hold regular wildfire town halls on Facebook Live to share the latest updates on wildfire preparations and respond to questions and concerns from the community. They’ve held three wildfire town halls in the past six weeks. These virtual gatherings are a huge asset to the people of Summit County. We urge our county commissioners to adopt this same practice.
Summit County Commissioner Elisabeth Lawrence described her county’s efforts in the recent community info session, “Staying Safe During Wildfires,” presented by the Garfield County Democrats. You can learn more by listening to the recording of that webinar (see GarcoDems.org) and on the Summit County website. You can view previous wildfire town halls on the Summit County Facebook page.
Lawrence also spoke about her county’s recent project of broadcasting wildfire-related messaging to visitors to their county, which would be a smart move for our county as well. Tourism is big business here, especially during the summer months when wildfire danger is at its peak, and I-70 through Glenwood Canyon is frequently closed. It’s too dangerous to have our county filled with people who may be unaware of the current dangers and unfamiliar with emergency traffic routes.
It’s time for our county to follow the examples set by forward-thinking commissioners to create interagency collaboration and hold regular public briefings on fire safety and emergency planning. All of us would benefit from such advancements.
Debbie Bruell of Carbondale chairs the Garfield County Democrats.
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