Plan pegs wildfire as Pitkin County’s top potential disaster
September 15, 2011
ASPEN – Catastrophic wildfire is Pitkin County’s No. 1 risk, according to an in-depth assessment of potential natural hazards in the county and its municipalities. Volcanic eruptions, however, probably aren’t worth worrying about.
The county, working with 10 other local jurisdictions, recently put the finishing touches on an updated Pre-Disaster Mitigation Plan that now goes to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, for review and approval. After that, each of the local jurisdictions is expected to adopt the plan, which outlines steps to eliminate or reduce long-term risks to people and property as a result of natural disasters. Having the plan in place makes the jurisdictions eligible for FEMA grant programs.
The occurrence of a catastrophic wildfire is identified as likely in the county, as well as in the city of Aspen and towns of Snowmass Village and Basalt. In addition, catastrophic flooding is a top risk in both Aspen and Basalt, according to the hazard rankings in the plan. Rounding out the top five are typical flooding, landslides/rock slides and winter storms.
Other potential hazards that were deemed likely, but oftentimes with limited consequences, were avalanches, drought, lightning, windstorms/tornados and earthquakes. Omitted from the plan were hazards such as extreme heat, hailstorms and volcanic eruptions. The only volcano in the area, Dotsero, is located 20 miles north of Basalt, but hasn’t erupted in about 4,200 years, the plan notes.
Dam failure also is not addressed in the plan, though there are 19 dams that, if they failed, could potentially impact areas of Pitkin County. Any dam with a high hazard potential has a separate emergency action plan, so they aren’t addressed in the county Pre-Disaster Mitigation Plan.
Those who participated in drafting the plan also acknowledged human-caused hazards – special events actually rose to the top of the list, noted Valerie MacDonald, emergency management administrator for the county. Risks such as aviation incidents, pandemics and terrorism are noted, as well, though the plan is intended to focus on natural hazards.
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“FEMA is not interested in our man-made hazards,” MacDonald said.
Instead, the 153-page plan analyzes the relative likelihood of natural hazards that pose the most serious threats to property and human safety in the county, and outlines steps to lessen their impacts.
The mitigation measures include, for example, steps to improve the coordination and response capabilities of emergency responders and enhancing regulations and enforcement to reduce the effects of events such as wildfire and flooding.
The document, for example, calls for strengthening local regulations to require the clearing of vegetation in key areas around houses when property or structures are modified. It also advocates clearing trees killed by pine beetles when they’re near developed areas.
“If the community is going to identify wildfire as the No. 1 risk, then take steps to do something about it,” said Tom Grady, emergency manager for the county.
Pitkin County has a 23 percent chance of seeing a large-scale wildfire (75 acres or more) in any year, based on the frequency and size of past events, according to the plan.
A major fire in the zone where urban development butts up against wildlands could have devastating results, it concludes.
“Depending on the size of the wildfire and its location, the loss of life and amount of damage could be catastrophic,” the plan states.
The county’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation Plan was last updated in 2005. Eagle County was involved in the drafting of that plan, but not the latest version.
“They have different concerns than we do – they have the I-70 corridor,” MacDonald explained. “We wanted to tailor it more specifically to our needs in Pitkin County.
Also taking part in drafting the local plan were representatives of Aspen, Basalt and Snowmass Village; the fire districts based in Aspen, Snowmass, Basalt and Carbondale; and Aspen Ambulance District, Aspen Valley Hospital and Colorado Mountain College.
MacDonald said officials don’t know when FEMA will take action on the draft plan.
“We’ve been told it can take awhile,” she said.
Funds to draft the plan included $20,000 from the county, $20,000 from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and $40,000 in federal dollars.
The public can download the plan online at http://www.aspenpitkin.com (click on County Departments and then Emergency Management). A paper copy is available to review at each of the participating jurisdiction’s offices, according to Grady.