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Preparedness, prevention are key during wildfire season

What might an evacuation actually look like in Snowmass Village?

Roaring Fork Fire Station 45 in Snowmass Village on Tuesday, March 4, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Time and again, local fire officials and public safety groups have urged vigilance and preparedness during what they anticipate to be another severe wildfire season in which the question is not “if” but “when.”

“This is no rosy picture. … If you think calmly in any situation, it’s going to be a (much) better outcome, so we display that and we carry that, and hopefully it rubs off on our community,” said John Mele, deputy chief and fire marshal for Roaring Fork Fire Rescue, which serves Snowmass Village. “But we’re being very honest with our community in saying that this is probably one of the worst times in our valley for the potential of a catastrophic wildfire.”

Prevention efforts like fire restrictions and mitigation practices are “key,” Mele said. But prevention is not a substitute for preparation: signing up for community alerts, packing a “go bag” and creating an evacuation plan now can make a big difference when the time comes to evacuate in “a reasonable amount of time.”



Stage 2 Fire Restrictions

Pitkin County is currently under Stage 2 fire restrictions, essentially prohibiting all fires, including those within developed campsites and permanent outdoor fireplaces. Smoking is also prohibited, except within an enclosed vehicle, building or area cleared of all combustible materials. Fireworks are prohibited.

“What is a reasonable amount of time? Well, it’s a variable, of course,” Mele said. “If it’s a threat that’s imminent, I think the timelines are definitely a lot shorter. … What you should do is make sure that your family’s safety is taken care of first, and that’s why we say, ‘Do all this go kit stuff now so that when you’re asked to leave you can leave in a very short reasonable amount of time.’”

So what might an evacuation actually look like in Snowmass Village? It depends on where the fire is, for one; Pitkin Alerts will dispatch communications to ensure people are aware of any applicable road closures, pre-evacuation notices and evacuation instructions when the time comes.



“It’s broad scope. We’re trying not to be doing this in blinders — in other words, ‘This is the set way,’” Mele said. “But we do have very capable managers, emergency managers that have been doing this for quite a while, we’ve been talking and planning these things for many, many years.”

As for getting from the village to Highway 82, officials will direct people to the safest routes for evacuation — namely, Brush Creek or Owl Creek Road.

Mele said there’s little he can do to dissuade residents with four-wheel-drive vehicles from bypassing whatever traffic might occur on Brush Creek Road by following Divide Road over to Old Snowmass, so long as officials aren’t actively blocking that route.

As long as the road is open, “I would never say, ‘Absolutely don’t do that’ — the conditions may warrant that. … If you’re that familiar with these backroads and that’s the way you feel about your way of evacuation — if you’re not being stopped by a sheriff or police, that’s entirely your decision,” he said.

Even so, “more information is better,” Mele said; trusting official guidance is the best way to go, especially because fire and public safety crews have the most intel on where the fire could move.

Then there’s the matter of Snowmass Village’s large tourism base; not all visitors have a car when they come to town, but officials are ready for that possibility in an evacuation too. Town shuttles would transport people from their lodging to buses heading out of the valley in some instances; in others, it may actually be safer for those guests to stay right where they are if they’re based in a newer building.

“Snowmass is new enough to where the facilities that are being built are being built with really noncombustible air handling systems that can control, you know, in-and-out type of atmospheres,” Mele said. “We may very well, in a dire emergency, be able to shelter in place people that are in some of these structures. … If they stay right where they are, we can maybe better protect them right where they are.”

Roaring Fork Fire Rescue is already in communication with hotels and local property managers to ensure that visitors, short-term renters and non-resident homeowners are in the loop.

But again, information on where to go (and when to go) will come from community emergency alert systems like Pitkin Alert; Roaring Fork Fire Rescue also is equipped to send out information to those registered for Community Connect, a regional platform that allows homeowners to share essential property information with first responders.

Pitkin Alerts may also communicate the best way for evacuating residents to indicate their residence is empty; standard practice is a white T-shirt on the door, Mele said, but those alerts could offer more specific instructions.

The Sylvan Fire, which has burned more than 3,700 acres south of Eagle, and a handful of other recent small wildland fires near Old Snowmass and the Fryingpan Valley have already proven the importance of that planning. It hits close to home, in more ways than one.

“When people see smoke in the air, they start to think, personally, a little bit more about how the area that we’re in and the potential — the Lake Christine Fire then comes back to memory,” Mele said. “Some people might not have been here for that, but when you sit up at the concert site on Thursday night and look across and see the Sylvan smoke, it does heighten a little bit (for) everyone.”

Thanks to that extensive planning process and experience in the field, fire crews themselves aren’t so much nervous as hyperaware of the situation, Mele said.

“We know the potential of these different types of things, and we deal with them every day. When they call us, it’s usually someone’s worst day, and we’re dealing with it,” Mele said. “We do it all the time, and I think our men and women do a fantastic job of it, so I don’t think we get as nervous, but we do heighten our awareness. And that’s the key, is we need to be calm so that our community is calm.”

Wildfire Preparedness Resources

Pitkin Alert: pitkinalert.org

Community Connect: communityconnect.io/info/co-rffr

Wildfire Evacuation Checklist: bit.ly/evac-checklist

“Ready Set Go” Wildfire Action Plan: bit.ly/RFFR-readysetgo

kwilliams@aspentimes.com


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