Fire expert: Few in county realize threat
May 2, 2002
Many rural homeowners in the Roaring Fork Valley and other parts of Colorado haven’t taken threats of wildfires seriously enough, according to a state expert.
Vince Urbina, assistant district forester with the Colorado State Forest Service, said too few people who live in and adjacent to forest lands take proper precautions to protect their property.
The state forest service promotes thinning trees and vegetation to create a “defensible space” around homes and structures. The precaution is designed to protect individual properties and prevent the rapid spread of wildfires.
“We’re still preaching the message almost on a daily basis,” said Urbina. “People really don’t want to hear about fire until there’s smoke in the air.”
Colorado is suffering its worst drought since 1977 and one of its worst in a century. Snowpack in the Roaring Fork Valley was never more than 75 percent of normal this winter and often much lower. Even so, that was a better snowpack than in most parts of the state.
The valley has received only about two-thirds the normal amount of precipitation since Oct. 1.
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Despite publicity about dry conditions, there was little interest from homeowners in taking precautions until the mammoth Snaking fire struck the Bailey, Colo., area last month, Urbina said. That fire scorched nearly 2,600 acres of tinder-dry mountainous terrain and threatened hundreds of homes. It cost more than $1.4 million to fight.
Part of Urbina’s job is to assess new development applications for Pitkin and Garfield counties and recommend wildfire prevention steps. Pitkin County requires home builders and developers to follow the recommendations in some subdivisions. In other cases, the information is advisory only.
Urbina and the other foresters in the Grand Junction office also work with individual homeowners and homeowners associations that seek help creating defensible space.
Regarding his experiences in Pitkin County, Urbina concluded, “For the most part, people have not taken fire seriously.”
When he tells homeowners what he thinks they should do to make their property more defensible, they often react with skepticism and ask how long it’s been since a fire struck that particular area.
Urbina said that what they don’t understand is that much of the forest in Colorado’s mountainous terrain would be burning in any given year without man’s intervention. Fire is a natural and valuable part of the ecosystem, but fires have been suppressed now for more than a century.
The result, he said, is too much fuel for potentially catastrophic fires. He noted that three years of low snowpack have made conditions especially dry in western Colorado. One assessment noted that the largest trees, regarded as 1,000-hour fuels, have a moisture content in the teens – a dangerously low level.
The dry conditions convinced Little Annie homeowner Glenn Horn that it was time to follow the state forest service’s guidelines. Horn, a land-use planner, said he has been on numerous site visits as part of his job with Urbina. He’s learned what needs to be done to make his property less susceptible to wildfire, but he hadn’t followed that advice until last weekend.
Horn spent the weekend clearing dead trees and branches and thinning other vegetation from the slope below his home. The dry conditions spurred his work, he said.
The U.S. Forest Service also learned recently just how dry conditions are in the valley. Agency officials planned a controlled burn south of Carbondale during the third week of April, but the crew scuttled plans when it assessed conditions, according to Sopris District Ranger Bill Westbrook.
The crew planned to burn 350 acres on a ridge climbing to 8,600 feet north of Nettle Creek. A natural fire break, such as a stand of mature aspen trees, is essential for a controlled burn.
“They decided our large fuel stands wouldn’t hold it,” said Westbrook.
Development of the Roaring Fork Valley has pushed at an accelerated rate into areas that firefighters call the urban interface – where forests and rural subdivisions converge.
A recent Denver Post article estimated that Colorado’s population in the “red zone” – where homes are sprinkled in and around 6 million acres of forest – grew by 33 percent from 1990 to 2000. The population in that red zone, which includes much of Pitkin County, is now at 1 million people.
The population in unincorporated Pitkin County jumped from 6,037 to 6,407, or 6 percent, over that decade, according to U.S. Census data. Eagle County’s unincorporated population swelled 103 percent from 10,637 to 21,572 over that same period.
While not all of that growth came in fire-prone areas, a good share of it did.
State foresters said many newcomers resist contacting them because they fear the advice will be to chop all their trees down.
“We’re talking about thinning trees rather than cutting them all down,” said assistant district forester Kelly Rogers. They only advise removing trees and vegetation within 10 feet of homes or structures. Otherwise, the advice is to thin trees and vegetation to break the horizontal and vertical continuity.
The state forest service has funds available through the National Fire Plan to assist homeowners. It will split costs 50-50, within limits, through the Fuel Reduction Incentives Program.
Individuals or, preferably, homeowners associations, can call the state forest service at 970-248-7325 to arrange a site visit by a forester and to get an application.
The forester will help design a plan, then it is implemented either by the homeowner or hired help. Homeowners can be compensated for some of their time at a rate of about $11 per hour.
“This is really a good opportunity for landowners, and they should take advantage of it,” said Rogers.