Fire expert says valley is lackadaisical
August 5, 2002
The Roaring Fork Valley has done a lousy job of taking steps to protect homes from wildfires, according to a leading fire prevention official on the Western Slope.
John Denison, district forester for the Colorado State Forest Service, said the Panorama fire in Missouri Heights was inevitable due to the little attention paid to creating a defensible space around homes. The only surprise, he said, is that the fire didn’t destroy more houses.
The Roaring Fork Valley shows “an almost total disregard for wildfire hazards by the county planning departments,” said Denison, whose district includes Pitkin, Garfield and the western sliver of Eagle County. “There’s no effective addressing and enforcing of wildfire hazards.”
Pitkin County planning director Cindy Houben said she was surprised by Denison’s comments. She said her department regards the state forest service’s advice as vital and almost always follows it.
“I can count on less than one hand where we backed off the wildfire mitigation,” Houben said.
Pitkin County forwards development applications to the state forest service for review. The agency will often advise the county on where a house and other structures should be situated on a site and what steps, such as cutting back brush, should be taken.
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@ATD Sub heds:’Waste of time’
@ATD body copy: Denison agreed that his agency’s advice is closely followed during development review in Pitkin County, but there is little enforcement after that. Brush and vegetation grows back in a few years, and homes become more susceptible to damage from a wildfire.
Denison noted that the county has funds for a wildlife biologist position, but not a wildfire officer.
He questioned whether his agency should perform the reviews in Pitkin County given the lack of follow-up enforcement.
“We’re wasting our time – and you can quote me on that,” said Denison.
Pitkin County deputy planning director Lance Clarke agreed with Houben that the department takes the state forest service’s advice seriously. A certificate of occupancy isn’t issued after construction if the state forest service’s recommendations haven’t been applied, Clarke said. But he acknowledged the county does little in enforcement after the permit is issued.
Denison said other counties, such as Garfield, don’t regularly incorporate his agency’s wildfire mitigation steps into their reviews.
@ATD Sub heds:The hot spots
@ATD body copy: The numerous subdivisions in the sprawling Missouri Heights area are located in both Garfield and Eagle counties. Denison and his staff members have made multiple trips there and found few homes properly prepared against the risk of wildfire.
A homeowner cannot completely remove the risk but several steps can be taken to ease it.
“The sure thing is keeping the fuels away from the house,” said Denison. That doesn’t mean removing all trees and shrubs from property. It means breaking up continuous paths of fuels – preserving them in clumps with cleared space in between, he said.
It also means not building a home with wood shake shingles. Denison said he cannot believe the city of Aspen still allows wood shakes, despite advice to the contrary from his agency and Aspen Fire Chief Darryl Grob.
In the hardest-hit neighborhood in the Panorama fire, an expensive home adjacent to Spring Park Reservoir was damaged when its wood shakes caught on fire. The home was approved within the past seven years by Eagle County. Other than the wood shakes, it appeared defensible. No tall trees surrounded it, and the brush was cleared around a lawn.
Firefighters saved the home and confined the damage to an attached car port.
Denison identified Missouri Heights as one of the most troubling spots in the Roaring Fork Valley for wildfire danger due to the number of homes, the terrain and vegetation.
The area is covered with gambol oak and sage brush, which firefighters label 10-hour fuels – those with branches and trunks about the size of a man’s arm. Larger juniper and pinion trees are regarded as 1,000-hour fuels.
“Missouri Heights has a lot of steep slopes, canyons with a continuous path of fuels and lots and lots of houses on those steep slopes,” he noted. “When you have continuous fuels, steep slopes and hot, dry weather, watch out.”
@ATD Sub heds:No one’s listening
@ATD body copy: The Colorado State Forest Service will work with homeowners to come up with a plan for providing defensible space around houses. It also serves as a conduit to provide federal funds to homeowners for some of the cost of that work.
Denison’s staff at the Colorado State Forest Service can be reached at 970-248-7325.
Despite regular publicity about the services, few people call. “It’s the it-will-never-happen-to-me syndrome,” said Denison.
Even newer homes that seem resistant to fire are susceptible in an interesting way – if fuels aren’t cleared from around them. Denison said fire will burn up to a house and sometimes blow out all the windows. Drapery or other flammables inside catch on fire and the house burns from the inside out.
When firefighters are reacting to a wildfire in an area where there are numerous homes, they’re often just performing “triage,” he said. They will make a quick assessment on what’s salvageable and what isn’t. Homes with defensible space get the nod.
Missouri Heights isn’t the only area where the state forest service sees extreme danger from wildfires. “This could easily happen on [Aspen’s] Red Mountain,” said Denison.