Westendorff: Praying for snow, preparing for wildfires

Friday, Dec. 1, 2017 4:47 PM
Julie Westendorff

The weather over the past several weeks hardly shows it, but this year’s version of winter is just around the corner – at least the calendar says so.

The sunny skies and warm temperatures we all enjoyed over Thanksgiving week signified something a little less pleasant that we should all pay attention to: Conditions are dry, and though our big snow months still lie ahead, now is a good time to plan for fire season next spring.

Thankfully, Durango Fire Protection District crews got a swift handle on the Electra Lake Fire last week, but the fact that a fire broke out at all in late November at 8,300 feet is concerning. Historically, that area is under several feet of snow by the time we carve our Thanksgiving turkeys. This year, there is little sign of the precipitation we need to help insure against wildfire during the warm months to come in 2018.

While I remain confident that the clouds will eventually deliver, the Electra Lake Fire provides a reminder – and the warm weather give us an opportunity – to get ahead of the game now in protecting our homes and lands from fire in the spring and summer months.

Butch Knowlton, La Plata County’s director of emergency management, says that when given the choice, doing fire prevention work around your home now is far more effective than waiting until spring when fuels and conditions are prime for burning. As he says – and maybe someone before him said it, too – an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

The good news is that our community has many resources to help with this effort. Southwest Colorado FireWise is an excellent place to start. This group works with neighborhoods to provide education, ideas and a network of assistance (including grant opportunities) with mitigation efforts that get homeowners ahead of fire danger. This work not only keeps you and your home safe, it helps keep you insured! You can find FireWise online at We are also wishing our longtime local FireWise director Pam Wilson a happy retirement. We look forward to working with her successor to keep FireWise programs vibrant in La Plata County.

We were very fortunate in this community during the 2017 fire season to have not experienced the devastation and loss that so many suffered this year. While the Lightner Creek Fire, just outside Durango, had the very real potential to develop into an apocalyptic event, excellent coordination, hard work and good luck were on our side and we avoided a catastrophe.

We could not have done so without the excellent assistance provided by the Type II Incident Management Team that arrived to fight the fire – and the interagency (state, federal and local) cooperation it took to do that hard work.

As we have seen nationally in recent years, wildfire season is growing in both length and intensity. This trend requires more resources: firefighters, emergency responders, dollars, search and rescue, plus community support – at a time when local, state and federal agencies are feeling financially squeezed. The equation is not altogether encouraging, but I hope we can respond to it proactively in La Plata County by taking steps now to keep ourselves safe later.

Of course, La Plata County is integrally involved in emergency management. It’s one of our statutory duties and one we take very seriously as part of our commitment to this community.

Knowlton, Tom McNamara (our emergency management coordinator), the Sheriff’s Office, the Search & Rescue team and everyone on our county staff is here to respond when things go wrong. But with fire danger in La Plata County higher than it should be now, and trending that way throughout the west over the past, it is in all of our best interest to prevent bad things from happening in the first place.

I hope that we see the moisture we rely on for safe fire conditions, our ski season, our rivers’ vitality and our growing seasons begin to accumulate soon (and often) into spring. While we can each take individual steps to protect our homes and lands from wildfire, we are most dependent on mother nature’s offerings of rain and snow. May she be generous this winter!

Julie Westendorff is chairwoman of the La Plata County Board of County Commissioners. Reach her at 382-6219.