Lahaina fire prompts Aspen-area emergency responders to prepare community for fire

A public meeting at the Aspen Fire Department on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023, taught community members that fire will come and the variable is their preparedness.
Josie Taris/The Aspen Times

Fire will happen. And we have to learn to live with it.

A panel of fire and public safety experts drove that message home on Wednesday evening at a public information meeting on wildfire preparedness and mitigation and emergency-response protocols. 

The Aspen Fire Protection District decided to host the meeting after multiple community members reached out to the department with concerns over the fire that torched parts of the Hawaiian island of Maui, particularly the town of Lahaina, earlier this month.

The 2018 Lake Christine Fire in El Jebel was the last major fire in the region, which burned more than 12,000 acres. The scar is still visible from Highway 82. And just earlier this season, the Spring Creek Fire near Parachute burned over 3,000 acres. Agencies partner on prescribed burns to mitigate risk and future effects of wildfires, but they’re just catching up after decades of fire suppression policy.

A crowd of about 100 people gathered in the apparatus bay, with more attending virtually, to learn more about the role of public officials in keeping the community safe, as well as their own responsibilities and opportunities in mitigating wildfire. 

Panelists stressed that in the effort to keep the community safe, the onus is on community members. And to do so, residents should:

  • Have a thorough, household evacuation plan
  • Know the location of nearby areas of refuge (spacious, well-irrigated spaces; low-combustibility infrastructure like a parking garage)
  • Harden homes and neighborhoods against fire

“One thing we really want to stress tonight is the absolute importance of hardening your home,” Aspen Fire Chief Rick Balentine said to the crowd. “You can make your home more fire safe, and you can make your neighbor’s home more fire safe by hardening your (home), as well.”

Hardening your home means reducing its vulnerability to wildfire. Strategies include removing fire fuels close to the house or improving the structural integrity of the home to be more fire resilient. 

Aspen Fire offers free, wildfire-mitigation assessments for private residences and neighborhoods. A firefighter will come to the property to evaluate the risk and give recommendations on how to best harden the home or maintain areas of refuge and protect evacuation routes for subdivisions. 

According to Ali Hammond, the director of community wildfire resilience, if a firefighter determines a large tree on a property as a wildfire risk, Pitkin County will waive the permit fee to remove the tree. 

The department also offers a wildfire-risk map, a community chipping program, and other educational resources. 

“Community resilience means living with wildfire and proactively reducing its destructive consequences,” she said. 

Communication and readiness was another major piece of wildfire preparedness discussed by the panelists, especially in worst-case-scenario events. 

“One of the big things in evacuation where things start to go wrong is with the communications,” said Parker Lathrop, the chief deputy of operations with the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office. 

The county offers a variety of alert systems for residents to be aware of emergencies as soon as possible, including the text/email notification systems Pitkin Alert and Reach Well, with translation to 100+ languages available. 

But he cautioned against relying only on notification systems, as telecom infrastructure could fail in a wildfire. 

“Take safety into your own hands,” he said to the crowd. “If you feel the need to evacuate, go ahead and don’t wait for the alert.”

Here are a few wildfire questions answered and rumors confirmed or debunked by panelists, which included representatives from Aspen Fire, the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, the Aspen Police Department, U.S. Forest Service, the Red Cross, and West Mountain Regional COAD (Community Organizations Active in Disaster):

What is the evacuation plan for the City of Aspen?

Basically, it’s an impossible question to answer without knowing the circumstances of the wildfire or other emergency. 

“We have done evacuation planning before: What if we have to evacuate everything? And, frankly, it’s not pretty,” said Aspen Police Assistant Chief Bill Linn. “We don’t have a lot of infrastructure in terms of roadways and exit strategies to get out of (Aspen).”

He went on to say that most likely, all inbound traffic lanes would be turned to outbound to speed up traffic. Where that traffic pattern would end is still unclear. Deputy Lathrop of the Sheriff’s Office stressed that vehicles would have to stay on the road to maintain the safety and viability of bike paths for those who evacuate via bike or foot. 

The Pitkin County Hazard Mitigation Plan is available on the emergency manager’s webpage. It was authored in conjunction with the City of Aspen, Town of Basalt, Town of Snowmass Village, Aspen Fire, and Roaring Fork Fire Protection District. 

And Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper noted that the board of commissioners granted Sheriff’s Office access to an emergency fund of about $100,000 for immediate use in a wildfire. That funding could help to immediately secure something like a helicopter for aerial firefighting.

Should residents turn on lawn sprinklers and leave them running in the event of a wildfire evacuation?

No. Rural water infrastructure cannot handle that kind of demand, according to Aspen Fire Wildfire Battalion Chief Jim Spaulding. 

Are first responders working with Holy Cross Energy to mitigate power line ignition risk?

Yes. “We are in direct communication with (Holy Cross),” said Sheriff Michael Buglione. “They’re part of our Public Safety Council. (Shutting off a power line near a fire) is a matter of — literally — pulling the switch.”

Preventative power shut-offs before an active fire seemed untenable, he noted, as most Holy Cross customers presumably would not want their power cut “just in case.”

And finally, What’s more likely to set your house on fire? A lightning strike or an ember from a wildfire a mile away?

An ember.

The full meeting, with many more questions and answers, is available to view online.


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