This June marks the 15th anniversary of the Missionary Ridge and Valley fires and the fifth anniversary of the Weber and West Fork fires. Combined, these fires burned almost 200,000 acres.
Each fire affected residents differently. Many people were evacuated because of the Missionary Ridge and Valley fires, often for a week or more, and some more than once. More than 50 structures were lost as well as one firefighter’s life. The high fire danger that year also shut down the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad for several days, resulting in a huge economic loss to both Durango and Silverton.
The Weber Fire resulted in numerous evacuations as well, with one structure lost. In my mind, the bigger impacts came after the fire, when the residents of East Canyon had to deal with erosion and debris flows across their main access route.
Burning primarily in the Weminuche Wilderness, one of the main impacts of the West Fork Fire was the closure of U.S. Highway 160 over Wolf Creek Pass for five days. Many businesses had never given thought to how they would receive supplies when their main access route was blocked.
As with any natural disaster, anniversaries are a good time to reflect on what has changed since the event occurred. I admit to being a little biased, but the creation of FireWise of Southwest Colorado in 2003, one year after the Missionary Ridge Fire, has resulted in huge benefits across the region.
Today, FireWise works across the five-county region and has 160 Neighborhood Ambassadors that represent 85 communities at high risk from wildfire. We offer a variety of support to these Ambassadors, including a number of incentive programs to get residents engaged and taking action.
However, FireWise is by no means the only player in this effort to create fire-adapted communities. Local, state and federal entities, as well as businesses and other nongovernment organizations have stepped up as well. Since 2010, Upper Pine River Fire has supported a wildland fire crew that completes mitigation projects on private land when they are not working a wildfire.
The D&SNGRR has made numerous improvements to its equipment; railroad personnel have undergone fire training; a helicopter flies between Durango and Silverton looking for fire starts during fire season; and over the past two years, hazardous fuels have been reduced along the railroad’s right-of-way.
Southwest Conservation Corps provides both fuels reduction and wildland firefighting, and the USFS and BLM have stepped up their prescribed and managed fire programs.
Southwest Colorado is fortunate to have two collaborative watershed groups, San Juan Headwaters Forest Health Partnership and the Dolores Watershed and Resilient Forest Collaborative, which are looking at wildfire risk to watersheds and prioritizing work on public and private land within those watersheds.
There are many other wonderful examples of proactive work by entities and individuals across the region better preparing their communities to live with the inevitable wildfire and hopefully lessen the potential impacts of future events.
On May 6, residents across the nation will be undertaking actions to help reduce their or their communities’ wildfire risk in celebration of National Community Wildfire Preparedness Day. Be a good steward and good neighbor and start working to help protect your home and this larger community that means so much to all who live and play here – the responsibility belongs to all of us.
Pam Wilson is the executive director for FireWise of Southwest Colorado and can be reached at 385-8909 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The San Juan Mountains Association serves as the fiscal agent for FireWise.