With a dry winter at lower elevations and the third year of drought in the forecast, wildfire season is fast approaching. Local fire agencies are encouraging residents to perform fire mitigation on their properties.
“No one can guarantee that your house or land will escape unscathed if a major conflagration erupts, but you can greatly improve your odds with a little preparation,” said Clyde Soles, the author of The Fire Smart Home Handbook, which will be released Tuesday.
Soles says the first thing to learn is that the term “defensible space” is outdated.
“Survivable space is what you need to think about,” he said. “In a major fire, the fire department will be stretched far too thin to defend a single property. It has to survive on its own for at least a couple of hours before firefighters can go in and mop up.”
Mike Keighley, whose home is up Cherry Creek Gulch west of Durango, has learned that not only does the area around the home need to be mitigated, it has to be safe for firefighters to work the fire.
“The place to start is to make sure the fire trucks can get up the road to your property,” he said. “You should clear at least 20 to 30 feet on either side of the road, so no low-lying branches or Gambel oak along the road can catch on fire. They don’t want to get caught up there.”
Keighley and his fellow homeowners have just completed a major fire-mitigation project on 60 to 70 acres in their neighborhood.
“We had someone from the Colorado Forest Service up here, and he said our area hadn’t been logged in 100 years and hadn’t had any fires in about the same time,” he said. “It was so overgrown, we had a lot of Gambel oak and low stuff, it was critical to get out.”
Fire mitigation like Keighley and his neighbors did was particularly important because they’re on top of a hill, said Pam Wilson, executive director of Firewise of Southwest Colorado. Firewise is a project of the National Fire Protection Association, which is co-sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service, the Department of the Interior and the National Association of State Foresters.
“They recognized their risk because fire runs uphill,” she said, adding that their neighborhood is safer because everyone got involved. “In most cases, you don’t have to look far to see untreated areas.”
In fact, unmitigated properties pose a real danger to the adjoining properties.
“What happens on a neighbor’s property doesn’t necessarily stay on a neighbor’s property,” said Odin Christensen, one of the Firewise ambassadors in the Elk Springs Ranch subdivision, which is along the La Plata-Montezuma county border.
He said his development was motivated by the destruction caused by the Missionary Ridge Fire in 2002, where 46 homes were destroyed in a fire that lasted 37 days and burned more than 70,000 acres. They were glad they had made a concerted effort on fire mitigation when the Weber Fire burned in the area during summer 2012.
“Weber burned up to four houses on the west side of County Road 46, including ours, but we had created quite a bit of defensible space,” Christensen said. “We lost quite a few trees from the fire that came across the property line pretty hot because we border (Bureau of Land Management) land, and they hadn’t done any mitigation, but we saved the house.”
Help is available
Firewise, local fire departments and the Colorado Forest Service can all work with homeowners to determine priorities in what needs to be done and referrals for who can do it. It’s best for subdivisions and neighborhoods to do it together – both to be more effective in fire-mitigation efforts and to be more efficient for the experts.
“By going in together, Mike Keighley’s neighborhood was able to get a Colorado Forest Service grant,” Wilson said. “The forest service had money that needed to be spent before the end of February, and we’ve had such a mild winter, they were able to take advantage of it.”
Soles, who lives outside Boulder, was motivated by firsthand experience after being evacuated from his home during the Fourmile Fire in 2010, which led him to research not just mitigation but the best tools and techniques to use.
“There was a lot of generic information available, but I wanted specifics,” he said. “It took me a lot of research, but there’s a high potential for injury if people don’t know what they’re doing.”
His handbook is also a good primer for anyone who wants to understand wildfires in the West.
How to start
“There’s a myth that you have to clear-cut a 200-foot swath around your house,” said Melody Walters, the Firewise coordinator for La Plata and San Juan counties. “We try to take a careful and balanced approach.”
While the list of needed fire-mitigation tasks can seem endless, she said there are some simple things anyone can do:
Rake up the leaves, pine needles and pinecones.
Clean the gutters.
Remove flammables from around the home.
Keep grass and weeds mowed at a low height.
Stack firewood uphill and away from the home.
Remove any branches overhanging the roof and chimney.
“The goal is to get rid of the fuels that fire can use as a ladder from the ground into the lower branches of a tree,” Walters said. “Technically, a lot of La Plata County is in the wildland-urban interface. A lot of people think fire mitigation only applies to houses or ranches out in the county somewhere. But these are even things people in town can and should do.”
Christensen said the Waldo Canyon Fire in 2012 that roared from the forest into Colorado Springs proved that fires don’t respect city limits.
“People who lived on golf courses didn’t realize that even they were at risk,” he said.
Gary Rottman, who lives at Shenandoah Highlands, is finishing up the first phase of what he expects to be a multiyear project.
“It seems like we denuded the place,” he said with a laugh, “but where I was hidden before, now I’m open, and that’s as it should be. I had some piñons that weren’t too healthy between the drought and beetles, then when we started clearing them out, we saw where a porcupine was gnawing on one.”
An investment that pays off
Keighley, Rottman and his neighbor Mel Owen all say there’s more to mitigation than safety and saving one’s home, as important as those are. They’re also an investment that can pay off in higher property values and better insurance rates.
“I’ve heard of and seen some letters from insurance companies that unless they see greater fire-mitigation efforts, policies may be canceled or rates may go up,” Owen said.
Keighley said what got his neighbors motivated was the idea of improving property values, and Rottman said people who perform mitigation and want to sell can add the feature of being fire-mitigated. The homeowners’ association at Shenandoah Highlands is requiring fire mitigation, Owen said.
“Some absentee owners have overgrown lots,” he said. “We’ve sent them letters that either they take care of it, or we’ll do it for them and send them the bill.”
Anyone whose home has been threatened by fire gets the importance of mitigation.
“We’re not as exposed as a lot of neighborhoods,” Owen said. “But we saw a fire a couple of years ago at Lake Nighthorse, so it’s good people are facing what needs to be done. We’d look like the backside of the moon if a fire went through here.”
Wildfires are one of the biggest dangers in our area, but Christensen said we’re more fortunate than people in other parts of the U.S.
“Unlike people who live in places with landslides or hurricanes or earthquakes, we can do something to minimize the danger,” he said.