Semro column: Wildfire prevention, safety is up to us
When you live out here, the threat of wildfires just goes with the territory. But things changed for me a couple of years ago. In a handful of minutes, a small fire in a neighbor’s yard just down the block turned into a home-threatening blaze when the flames engulfing bushes and trees started leaping 40 feet in the air.
That incident showed me two things: how fast a small fire can develop and get out of control, and how incredible the firefighters of the Glenwood Springs Fire Department are.
A lot of us live in a WUI (Wildland Urban Interface) where wildland is one-and-a-half miles or less from some part of town. And in case we need reminding, from the center of Glenwood, we can see the historical signs of wildfires all around us.
Look to the southwest and you see the remnants of the Coal Seam Fire (which is still burning underground as I write this). That fire destroyed 29 homes, threatened hundreds more and burned 12,000 acres of land. To the west you see Storm King Mountain, the fire that has forever marked this valley. When you go to Two Rivers Park you need to visit the memorial to the Storm King firefighters who lost their lives fighting that blaze. It’s a very real and necessary reminder that firefighters have routinely risked and given their lives for our safety.
To the southeast, above Valley View Hospital you see the site of the 2013 Red Canyon Fire. And if you live in New Castle or were driving down I-70 in July of last year you would have seen a big part the ridgeline south of town on fire. Once again, thanks to firefighters we saw no loss of life or homes.
In this valley, 2012 was the driest year in recorded history, and 2018 is currently on track to be the fourth driest year. But, before you take too much solace from that, we’re only one week off of the trend line that we saw for dry vegetation in 2012. And 2018 has been preceded by some of the driest years on record.
Over the last few years, according to Orrin Moon, the prevention division chief and fire marshal for Colorado River Fire and Rescue, “We’ve just been lucky. We haven’t had the ignition sources.” That begs the obvious question: Can we expect to stay lucky forever?
Fire prevention is the responsibility of everyone in the valley not just firefighters. Not all fires are started by dry lightning storms. You need to know when there’s a Red Flag warning and act accordingly. If you have a fire pit or an open grill, don’t use it on a windy day or too close to structures or flammable vegetation. As an old Forest Service poster said, “If you can’t go camping without a campfire, try camping without a forest.”
If houses are closely surrounded by trees and dry vegetation, it’s an unnecessary fire risk. In a wildfire situation with limited resources, firefighters may be forced to ignore those properties that are most likely to burn down.
Irresponsible use of fireworks can turn celebration into conflagration. A cigarette carelessly thrown out of a car can start a wildfire, maybe like the one in New Castle.
Our firefighters and fire departments regularly hold public education presentations that are far too sparsely attended. According to one firefighter at a presentation, “We see much better attendance after people see smoke in the sky.” That’s not a good sign.
These experts can tell you what to do to prevent fires, how to protect your home and your community, how communities can solicit external funding to help fire prevention and improve safety. They can tell you how to put together a fire prevention and evacuation plan for families, pets and livestock. And they can help you determine what your fire risk actually is.
You can contact GarCo911.org and sign up for free emergency warning notifications that will warn you of floods, landslides and fire threats immediately on your land line and cell phone. You can get a copy of “Living with Wild Fire: A Guide for Home Owners” and “Ready Set, Go: Your Personal Wildfire Action Plan” from any of our fire departments and fire protection districts. These very helpful instruction guides could save your home or your community.
Go to Glenwoodfire.org (Glenwood Fire Department), crfr.us (Colorado River Fire Rescue), carbondalefire.org (Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District), basaltfire.org (Basalt & Rural Fire Protection District) and grandvalleyfire.org (Grand Valley Fire Protection District) for local information. If you contact the Colorado Division of Insurance you can get information and ask questions about home and fire insurance coverage.
It doesn’t help to feel resigned, complacent or immune. Wildfires are one of the most significant threats that we face. We need to be ready and, as always, our fire departments are there to help us.
Bob Semro of Glenwood Springs is a former health policy analyst for the Bell Policy Center, and a legislative and senior advocate.