The heat is on and fire is on the horizon for the Aspen area
Public safety officials warn residents, visitors that wildfire is inevitable in the Roaring Fork Valley and to be ready for evacuation
Public safety officials are sounding the alarm bell on the likelihood of a large-scale wildfire in Pitkin County, and are urging people to come up with their own evacuation plans and have a “go bag” at the ready.
With low precipitation and snowpack levels, hot temperatures, high winds and a second year of drought in the tri-county area, it is a recipe for disaster.
“This is the year we have the highest risk in losing a subdivision or a town,” said Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Chief Scott Thompson, who has been a firefighter in the valley for 44 years. “We are in the worst-case scenario, that’s my instinct right now because I am scared.”
Valerie MacDonald, Pitkin County’s emergency manager, said with temperatures already in the 80s in June and little to no rainfall, conditions are worsening quickly.
“I’m on hyper alert,” she said. “There is no reason to believe that our luck is going to hold, and public safety agencies in the county have done everything they can to prepare for this.
“We really need the public to step up and do their part.”
Evacuation orders are based on real-time information related to the behavior of a fire, but that can change in a nanosecond as wildfires are unpredictable.
“There is no way in this valley, the way it’s configured, to get a pre-determined route out from flood or fire or those kinds of very dynamic situations,” Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said. “That’s not what we want to hear; I know the community wants to be told where to go and they will be on the day of a fire.”
The county has a robust emergency management response system that includes a multi-jurisdictional incident management team and an emergency operations center.
Within the first 24 hours of a wildfire, before state and federal resources are brought in, the incident is managed by the sheriff’s office with that system in place.
“Just having that structure in place, everybody knows their role during an emergency and we will respond and recover quicker than counties that don’t have that,” MacDonald said. “It’s unusual that counties our size have those things in place.”
DiSalvo added that the incident management team is scalable.
“If you start with a small wildfire, say an acre, that team can expand into hundreds of people in a few days,” he said.
MacDonald meets weekly with officials from the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Unit, local fire chiefs and the U.S. Forest Service to discuss conditions and possible restrictions.
Fire bans are likely coming earlier this summer than in past seasons, due to worsening conditions.
“If I was a betting man, I would put the over-under on two weeks,” DiSalvo said.
What can tax the county’s response structure is a population that is uninformed and unprepared.
Pitkin County’s main channel for alerting the public in emergencies is the Pitkin Alert notification system, which can reach people via text message, phone call or email regarding evacuation orders.
But with a population of close to 20,000 residents in the county, only 8,000 people are signed up for Pitkin Alert, according to MacDonald.
“I don’t understand the reticence,” in signing up for the alert system, she said. “If we can’t get information to them we can’t help them.”
That’s a lesson learned from the Lake Christine Fire, which broke out in 2019 and threatened subdivisions, trailer parks and almost engulfed the El Jebel area.
Thompson said public safety officials had difficulty informing certain segments of the population with evacuation orders.
“We were not able to reach the Latino community because of language barriers,” he said, adding a lot of work has been done to get translation tools into the notification system and other communications. “It’s always good to get information out early before pre-evacuations.
“People need early warning and they are going to get it from that platform.”
Map out your escape plan
With up to 50,000 people in the Aspen area on any given day this summer among residents, second-home owners and tourists, public safety officials are urging people to get informed on how to save themselves, their families and animals.
Every individual should have his or her own evacuation plan in place in advance of a fire, whether it’s via car, truck, motor home, raft, e-bike, four-wheeler, motorcycle or any other mode of transportation that gets them and their loved ones out of immediate danger.
People should have a directional understanding of what their ingress and egress routes are from where they live, as well as nearby designated roads for travel and if there are safe zones close, like a golf course or a rock field.
MacDonald said homeowners associations should actively engage their membership to know those fundamentals and practice evacuations.
Lodging properties should have the same type of plans in place, she noted.
People also should have multiple “go bags” ready at different places, like the home, office and in the vehicle in case one or more locations may not be accessible.
Thompson said the contents of that bag should be essentials like medications, important documents and three days’ worth of whatever an individual needs without having access to a store.
Last fall’s East Troublesome Fire that originated in Grand County showed emergency response and public safety officials how fast conditions can change.
Within 24 hours, the fire exploded from 18,500 acres to 187,964, jumping the Continental Divide and traveling 19 miles. It eventually grew to almost 194,000 acres.
About 35,000 residents were placed under mandatory evacuation orders, with 7,000 structures threatened.
Two people died as a result of choosing not to evacuate.
“There’s no guarantee we’re going to be sending out pre-evacuation notices, there is no guarantee you will get a call,” MacDonald said. “Ask yourself, if you are going to get a call at 3 in the morning or 3 in the afternoon that says ‘evacuate now,’ could you move in and out quickly?”
Public safety officials also ask residents to consider leaving their homes prior to evacuation if there is a fire close by to avoid gridlock.
That was experienced last year in downtown Aspen when the Grizzly Creek Fire shut down Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon, and motorists were forced to use Independence Pass as their entrance and exit to the valley.
The 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, California, killed 85 people. MacDonald said that area’s geography is similar to the Roaring Fork Valley’s in that the ingresses and egresses are limited.
“They waited too long,” she said. “The best advice I could give anybody in this community … I would say leave early, don’t even wait for the Pitkin Alert.”
The 911 dispatch system also got overwhelmed in Paradise, MacDonald noted.
“If your plan is to call 911, that is not good enough,” she said.
Going on the defense
DiSalvo, MacDonald and fire chiefs in the valley also urge people to create defensible spaces around their properties by removing fuels like leaves, brush and trees.
A hardening of the home, like replacing burnable roofs or shake shingles, also is recommended.
But DiSalvo and MacDonald said not enough property owners have actually taken measures to safeguard their homes.
“We thought we would see a change in people’s behavior after the Lake Christine Fire and people would start doing mitigation work clearing defensible space, but it did not (happen),” MacDonald said. “Do people have to die before we get the public’s attention?
“Education does not equal mitigation.”
Aspen Deputy Fire Chief Jake Andersen said the department has done about 40 wildfire risk assessments this year of the 70 that are scheduled.
In previous years, Aspen fire has conducted about 30 assessments.
Thompson said there has been an uptick in people wanting wildfire risk assessments and his department is doing about four a week.
He cautioned that doing some mitigation work in extreme drought conditions could cause a fire to start, and that people should create defensible spaces over the course of a few years.
Andersen said fire protection districts don’t have the kind of funding to help homeowners cover the costs of mitigation and as residential sprawl continues into the wildland urban interface, more property and life safety is threatened.
“The public perception is that wildfire is something that we can control,” Andersen said, adding the county and the sheriff’s office are doing a good job on educating the public as best as they can. “There are a lot of people who don’t understand wildfire in the mountains.”
The wildfire landscape has changed over the years, Andersen said, noting that the Bircher Fire in 2000 in Mesa Verde National Park was considered the largest in the state’s history at about 23,000 acres.
By comparison, the East Troublesome Fire’s one-day growth was five times the total size of the largest recorded timber fire in Colorado history two decades earlier.
“The game has totally changed,” he said, acknowledging that the topography of the valley poses challenges. “We do have multi-evacuation concerns and we are focusing on suppression and routes out.”
Aspen and Roaring Fork fire departments have partnered with local police and nearly 40 law enforcement personnel have participated in trainings on how to conduct evacuations and remain safe during a wildfire, Andersen said.
The incident management team, as well as emergency support function teams, the latter of which provide assistance in large animal rescues and evacuations, routinely conduct tabletop exercises on different scenarios.
That kind of work has been ongoing since at least March, when the incident management team developed an operating plan and then conducted tabletop exercises with officials from the state and federal governments to determine cost sharing and response needs, Thompson said.
He added that the federal government has stepped up its funding for wildfire response.
“They said, ‘Don’t worry about costs, order what you need,’” Thompson said. “That’s good, because we are in a horrible situation.”
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