Fireﬁghters: All homeowners need to help
June 28, 2012
BASALT – Roaring Fork Valley residents can still take a number of common-sense steps this summer to make their homes less susceptible to wildfires, Basalt firefighters said Wednesday.
While it is too late this fire season to take big steps such as removing trees and brush close to homes or mowing large swaths of grass on rural lots, there are many small steps that can help save structures in case of a fire, said Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson, fresh off two weeks helping fight the High Park Fire near Fort Collins.
The big steps cannot be taken because the work of removing a tree could itself spark a fire, he said. But a huge step many homeowners can take is removing firewood stacks from the side of homes or other structures. Piles of wood are a prime place for embers from a wildfire to land and start a structure fire.
“It’s almost like a catcher’s mitt for the embers,” Thompson said.
His other advice was to rake landscaping mulch away from homes, remove pine needles and other vegetation from rain gutters and remove any flammable materials from beneath decks.
If a wildfire breaks out, firefighters will perform “triage” to determine which properties have the best chance of being defended, Thompson said. Homeowners who take mitigation steps are most likely to get attention.
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The ravaging wildfires throughout Colorado and the tinder-dry conditions in the Roaring Fork Valley have captured the attention of homeowners.
“Recently we’re getting a spike in requests to do hazard assessments,” said Deputy Fire Chief Jerry Peetz.
The Fire Department will walk a property with a landowner and offer expert advice on steps to mitigate wildfire. The big steps that should be taken, like removing trees too close to a house, should be undertaken during the winter or early spring, Peetz said, but planning can start now when it’s fresh on homeowners’ minds. The Carbondale and Snowmass-Wildcat fire departments also perform the same services.
Basalt’s department started performing hazard assessments about a decade ago. The department received a $38,000 federal grant in 2003 and Peetz was trained as a “wildfire mitigation specialist.” He has worked with more than 100 property owners on easing risks from wildfires. One of the biggest efforts was undertaken with several property owners in 2010 on Cedar Drive, on the sun-drenched, south-facing slopes of Basalt Mountain.
Peetz will make recommendations. The homeowner can undertake the work or hire a contractor. The fire department doesn’t clear properties. However, in many cases, the effort is eligible for cost-sharing grants from the Colorado State Forest Service.
While scores of homeowners have taken action, many houses in the valley aren’t protected from wildfires. “A lot of people are behind the eight-ball right now,” Peetz said. “People are scared.”
And the firefighters are also concerned because of the severity of the dry conditions. “The potential for explosive fire growth is there from any source of ignition,” Peetz said. “What’s happening on the Front Range could definitely happen here.”
Thompson was part of a three-man crew that took a Basalt fire engine to help battle the High Park Fire. Duane Vasten and Ryan Newberry were also on the two-week detail. Thompson said they worked a 24-hour shift the first day, including travel, because conditions were so dire. Another Basalt firefighter, Steve Howard, was also on the scene as a task force leader.
The engine crew worked from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. each day and night protecting structure and making sure fire didn’t escape from areas that were deliberately burned out to stop the spread of the wildfire. One night they prevented a garage fire from spreading to a house. They spent considerable time in sprawling subdivisions that were threatened and, in the case of Glacier View, substantially burned.
“We went into a subdivision and it was like a nuclear attack was happening,” Thompson said. There were burned out structures and others still burning. Their job was to make sure the structures that survived didn’t catch fire.
Wind-whipped embers were flying at them on several nights, like fireflies hurling through the air, Thompson said. It’s those embers that often caught homes on fire, even when they were a long distance from the fire line, he said. That’s why it is important to remove firewood stacks and combustible materials away from structures.
Thompson said the High Park fire was unlike any of the multiple wildfires he has helped battle. Its size and fury were unparalleled in his experiences. One of the hard lessons was there is no guarantee that houses that have taken steps to protect against wildfire will be safe against big, crowning fires in super dry conditions.
“I saw houses that I thought were a poster child (for fire mitigation) and they still burned up,” he said.
Peetz and Thompson said all Roaring Fork Valley residents, whether they live on the valley floor or the hills, should prepare their “go kit” with valuables, pictures, documents and anything else important.