As the region moves into the most dangerous time of the year for wildfire, authorities are urging residents to take all possible measures to protect themselves.
The best protection against such a disaster is what fire experts call defensible space.
It means maintaining the area surrounding a house clear of flammable debris and fuels that can carry flames to structures.
Once flames reach a wooden structure, its often too late to save it. Case in point: the March 21 fire that destroyed a house in the Rafter J subdivision.
The house was fully involved even before 911 was called, Dave Imming, a spokesman for Durango Fire & Rescue Authority, said. A neighbor called 911 because the owner was trying to fight the fire.
In this case, the culprit wasnt a wildfire, but hot ashes left on a cedar porch that started the blaze, which was pushed by 40-mph wind. In fact, firefighters had to keep the house fire from spreading into a wildfire.
Even in the best of cases, responders would have had their hands full, Imming said. The first firefighters on the scene arrived from the DFRA downtown station, 17 minutes away.
The necessity for people to take responsibility for their own fire risk has become an increasingly salient message from authorities as people build ever further into the hinterlands.
Kent Grant, Colorado State Forest Service district forester in Durango, said homeowners cant assume firefighters alone will save their house. They must help themselves.
In certain cases, firemen do an assessment to decide if they can save a house, Grant said. They wont go in if its not safe.
Pam Wilson, who coordinates Firewise of Southwest Colorado fire-safety projects, said 2011 is a good year to think about defensible space.
The weather has been drier than usual, so forest fuels have less moisture, Wilson said. We also have seen a lot more wind than usual.
Firewise of Southwest Colorado promotes fire safety through neighborhood ambassadors who organize their community to remove overgrown vegetation.
Southwest Colorado had 192 wildfires in 2010 that burned 140 acres, Wilson said. So far this year, 13 wildfires have consumed 308 acres, she said.
Jon Westrup owns Fire Smart LLC, one of a half-dozen companies around Durango that does fuel reduction. Westrup sees the situation up close.
While there are proactive homeowners, he said, others dilly-dally in preparing their property to withstand an assault by fire.
Theyre most ready just after a fire and least ready just before a fire, Westrup said.
Fire experts recommend a graduated system of fireproofing measures.
Rod Allen, a battalion chief with DFRA, speaks of three concentric circles of protection:
b In Zone 1, the first 3 to 5 feet around a house should be gravel, followed by 10 feet in which all vegetation is removed.
b In Zone 2, 75 to 125 feet wide depending on slope trees and large shrubs should have limbs removed up to 10 feet above the ground. Firewood and propane tanks should be 30 feet from a house and up slope.
b In Zone 3, trees may be thinned as a precaution and tree health should be maintained.
Grant and Wilson said the area adjacent to the house is the most important, although removal of all vegetation isnt required.
Remove pine needles from gutters and debris from under decks, mow tall grass, dont stack wooden ladders or building material against a house and remove ladder fuel that can carry flames to tree crowns, they said.
A flame front may not take out a house, but flying embers might, Grant said.
Ive seen houses lost when the flames were stopped 200 yards away, Grant said. Embers landing on a dry wood-shingle roof did the job.
In wildfires where evacuation was difficult, homeowners have ridden out the fire in an adequately fireproofed structure, Grant said.
Among other measures that can help firefighters are installing reflective address signs, making sure there is easy access and creating a place where emergency vehicles can turn around.