Lake Christine Fire sparks homeowner interest in mitigating their property | AspenTimes.com

Lake Christine Fire sparks homeowner interest in mitigating their property

The Lake Christine Fire has sparked interest among homeowners from Basalt to Aspen to get their property assessed by experts for wildfire threat.

Now officials are hoping the property owners follow through with recommended steps to make their land less susceptible to fire.

"Since we previously had not suffered a catastrophic fire in our backyard, it was close to impossible to get homeowners to mitigate their wildfire risk ad prepare an evacuation and emergency plan," said Pitkin County Emergency Manager Valerie MacDonald. "There was a public perception that we live in paradise and we don't have disasters. That myth has been dispelled."

Basalt officials hung door hangers at numerous houses in the Hill District early in September inviting them to sign up for free inspections of their grounds. About 25 homeowners took the offer, said Town Manager Ryan Mahoney. The idea was to "capitalize" on the awareness created by the Lake Christine Fire, which destroyed three structures in El Jebel and threatened hundreds more in El Jebel and Basalt. The fire burned 12,588 acres of state, federal and private lands.

“The mitigation ahead of time is the time to save the property, not when the smoke is in the air.”

— Rick Balentine, Aspen fire chief

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Mahoney said officials with the town, the fire departments of Basalt and Snowmass Village, Eagle County and the Colorado State Forest Service were satisfied with the response.

"It's about what we guessed would happen," Mahoney said.

Fire officials met with the homeowners and filled out checklists of steps they should take to increase the protection of their homes and grounds. Now it's up to property owners to follow through by undertaking the work themselves or hiring a contractor for the labor. The town will collect brush and chip on specific days in October for free.

The goal is not only to mitigate 25 properties, Mahoney said, but also create a demonstration project.

"We hope that neighbors see that mitigation doesn't mean clear-cutting," he said.

The Lake Christine Fire influenced actions of homeowners in the upper valley as well.

"We've had an incredible uptick in mitigation this year," said Rick Balentine, fire chief of the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department.

There's been about a 600 percent increase in the number of free assessment requested this summer compared to last year, he said. The department has offered free inspections for several years. This year is the busiest.

Fire department personnel visit the property and produce a free written report with recommendations on mitigation steps. As in Basalt, it's up to the property owners to follow through by either undertaking the work themselves or hiring out the work.

"There's not been a lot of mitigation done yet," Balentine noted. That's mostly due to ongoing fire restrictions. The fire district doesn't want people firing up chain saws and other equipment that could potentially start a wildfire.

Balentine said there was probably a widespread opinion in the past that the upper valley was immune to a devastating wildlife due to its elevation at and above 8,000 feet and generally wetter conditions. Wildfires in Basalt and Summit County that were close to devastating hundreds of homes have helped change the perception.

That's a relief to Balentine. His research shows about 18,000 acres in the Aspen fire district is in what's known as the wildland-urban interface — where forest meets or surrounds development. There are 5,844 structures with an estimated value of $26 billion in the WUI in and around Aspen, he said. About 98 percent of the population of the fire district lives in the WUI.

He said that is a clear sign that mitigation must be undertaken to avoid a catastrophic fire at some point.

"The mitigation ahead of time is the time to save the property, not when the smoke is in the air," Balentine said.

Snowmass Village Fire Marshall John Mele said Snowmass Village homeowners associations were on board with mitigating for wildfire even before the Lake Christine Fire. The team received a challenge grant some years ago that was matched by the town, fire department and homeowners associations. That supplied funds to clear brush and take other steps in common areas in subdivisions. Many individual homeowners witnessed the benefits and followed suit on their own properties.

Two common steps that are recommended are outdoor housekeeping — removing piles of wood or lumber and removing dead grasses — as well as removing trees and limbs that rob against structures, Mele said.

Typically the houses that burn during wildfires aren't engulfed in a wall of flames, he said. Instead, they ember showers catch brush on fire near a house. Cleaning up a property "doesn't give embers a place to harbor," Mele said.

Scott Thompson, fire chief in the Basalt and Snowmass Village fire departments, said earlier this summer that the Lake Christine Fire provided clear-cut evidence that mitigation efforts pay off. A project on federal lands just east or upvalley of the El Jebel Mobile Home Park thinned brush in the mid-2000s. He believes that work clearly helped firefighters save the mobile home park July 4 when winds whipped the fire over a ridge, downhill and downvalley.

Anyone in the valley wishing to get a mitigation assessment for their property can contact their local fire department.

scondon@aspentimes.com