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Agencies brace for summer blazes

Warm, dry conditions expected to heighten danger

Holden Welch clears a tree, and, from left, Dylan Hendricks, John Conway and Nick Werner, all with an Upper Pine Fire Protection District wildland crew, carry logs and slash away during fire-mitigation work Tuesday at the Deer Creek subdivision east of Bayfield. Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

Holden Welch clears a tree, and, from left, Dylan Hendricks, John Conway and Nick Werner, all with an Upper Pine Fire Protection District wildland crew, carry logs and slash away during fire-mitigation work Tuesday at the Deer Creek subdivision east of Bayfield.

The prospect of a dry, warm summer has officials doing as much as possible to minimize chances of wildfires.

They remember too well last year when wildfires burned more than 39,000 acres in Southwest Colorado.

“The snow is coming off quickly, probably a month ahead of schedule, and things are drying out,” Richard Bustamante, fire management officer for the San Juan National Forest, said Wednesday. “But we’re not in fire season yet.”

Fire season doesn’t come around like Christmas or the Fourth of July, he said. Fire season begins when fires begin, with the core period being late May to mid-July. So far, public lands have seen no wildfires.

By July, the monsoon rains can bring some relief.

Seasonal firefighters are being hired and a midsize helicopter is scheduled to arrive at the aerial tanker base near Durango-La Plata County Airport about the middle of May, Bustamante said.

Ranger districts will have their usual level of staffing, which include hand crews and engine crews, he said. A hot-shot crew will be available as of April 20.

If push comes to shove, fire officials can impose Stage 1 or Stage 2 limitations such as they did last year on outdoor burning, campfires, smoking, welding and chain saws.

The weather outlook in Southwest Colorado is not encouraging, but not dire.

The National Integrated Drought Information System expects drought to persist or intensify in much of the West and Midwest. But it lists Southwest Colorado in “moderate” straits. Severe, extreme and exceptional drought categories are more onerous.

Southwest Colorado also is expected to see below-normal precipitation and warmer-than-normal temperatures for the next three months.

In its March 19 drought report, the NIDIS said moderate to exceptional drought covers 52 percent of the contiguous United States, up from 51 percent the week before.

Fire-protection districts are taking no chances.

Seasonal firefighters employed through Upper Pine Fire Protection District were at Deer Valley Estates east of Bayfield again this week to cut trees and brush that could fuel a wildfire.

Chris Reynolds, a lead crewman, said the branches would be chipped and hauled away. Trunks would be sectioned and stacked as firewood for the homeowners, John and Tracey Van Schaik.

“I appreciate what these guys are doing,” said John Van Schaik, who retired after 33 years as a fireman in Chicago. “Fire is our common enemy, so they’re part of the team.”

Deer Valley Estates earned recognition from FireWise of Southwest Colorado in 2009 for its Community Wildfire Protection Plan, the result of fire-proofing the subdivision. Today, there are 14 subdivisions in the region with community-devised fire-prevention plans, said director Pam Wilson of FireWise, which marks its 10th anniversary this year.

U.S. Forest Service fire managers plan to burn forest ground fuel this spring. Near Chimney Rock, 17 miles southwest of Pagosa Springs, up to 342 acres could be treated with what is known as a prescribed burn. Ten miles northwest of Pagosa Springs, between Turkey Springs Road and Newt-Jack Road, up to 500 acres are ready to burn.

Prescribed burns are deliberate actions carried out under specific conditions, including temperature, humidity and wind.

Wilson is organizing at least two efforts to show homeowners how small actions can forestall a disaster. She is looking for volunteers to dispose of a heap of trash at Annie’s Orphans, a no-kill pet shelter, along La Posta Road.

She also is organizing Home Ignition Zone workshops in La Plata and Montezuma counties. Participants will spend 12 hours over two days learning tricks beyond creating 30 feet of clear space around a house.

“The flaming front of a wildfire many times doesn’t destroy a house,” Wilson said. “It’s often a spark that gets in an attic vent or under a soffit.”

Installing a protective screen is a simple way to avoid a lot of grief later, Wilson said.

As a final exercise, workshop participants will visit a house or two to critique wildfire safety measures.

FireWise relies on ambassadors to organize their neighbors to down overgrown trees and brush, widen subdivision roads and create turnaround space for fire vehicles.

“We try to get people thinking,” Wilson said. “There are little things they can do that pay big dividends.”

FireWise is an independent organization that shares the name with a national organization with the same goals.

Public lands fire managers have been meeting with fire-protection districts, sheriff’s offices and their emergency agencies for annual operations planning, said Chris Barth, spokesman at the Interagency Fire Management Unit in Montrose.

“We’ve been discussing mutual-aid plans, how we’re going to respond if a fire covers more than one jurisdiction and how we’ll handle the command from the time we get the call until we go home safely,” Barth said.

“We’re hiring seasonal firefighters, starting refresher courses and getting in physical condition,” Barth said. “In the work-capacity test, firefighters have to carry a 45-pound pack three miles in an hour on a trail or a track.”

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