Threat of wildfire worries fire chiefs | AspenTimes.com

Threat of wildfire worries fire chiefs

Scott CondonAspen, CO Colorado
Fire fighters stand their ground against the advancing *** fire near Upper Cattle Creek Road Wednesday afternoon July 31, 2002. Paul Conrad photo.
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Roaring Fork residents should be concerned but not panicked over the threat of wildfires this summer, the fire chiefs of Basalt and Carbondale said Friday.Ron Leach, the Carbondale chief since 1980, and Scott Thompson, the Basalt chief since 2000, said conditions are the driest since 2002, creating a particularly nasty season for wildfires. It as bad as they have seen in their tenures.”On a scale from one to 10 with 10 being the highest danger, I would say Garfield County is at eight and Pitkin County is at seven,” said Leach. Thompson concurred.”If we don’t get those monsoonal troughs of rain, we’re in trouble,” Thompson said. “We’d have to see it on a regular basis for a couple of weeks before I will sleep at night.”Leach stressed he isn’t trying to “over-dramatize” the danger, but he wants to call it to the attention of the public to promote preparedness and prevention.”We want to prevent a big wildfire rather than sit back on heels and react,” he said.Fire bans are in effect on private and public lands throughout the valley and in other parts of the state. Open fires are prohibited and there are restrictions on operating machinery that produces a spark. Tickets are even being issued when people are spotted flicking a burning cigarette butt out of a vehicle.

Numerous wildfires are triggered in tinderbox conditions like those by lightning strikes. Basalt firefighters had to climb into an obscure gulch Thursday on national forest in the Fryingpan Valley to snuff a small fire.Prevention is obviously impossible when Mother Nature is involved. But Leach and Thompson want to eliminate human triggers of wildfires and urge homeowners in rural, wooded subdivisions to prepare defensible space around their homes so firefighting is more effective.The two biggest wildfires in the Roaring Fork Valley, which both started in the Panorama subdivision in Missouri Heights, were ignited by human activities. The first, in the late 1980s, was started by fireworks; the second in 2002 was from sparks from a power cutter on rebar at a construction site.

Thompson said people need to consider their actions carefully in these dry conditions. “We’re in as bad of shape as we were when the last Panorama fire started,” he said.Both fire departments have launched outreach programs to educate homeowners on what they can do to help protect their property. Information is available at the websites of both departments: http://www.basaltfire.org; and http://www.carbondalefire.org; as well as http://www.firewise.org.A meeting will be held for Missouri Heights homeowners on Wednesday, July 25, regardless of which district they live in. The meeting will be held at 7 p.m. at the fire station on County Road 100. Leach will assess wildfire danger, discuss mitigation steps and share plans for fighting fires and evacuating areas.Similar meetings will be held Tuesday, July 24, in Marble and Thursday, July 26, in Redstone. Details for the Crystal Valley meetings are yet to be determined.Homeowners also can contact the main fire stations at each district to schedule assessments of their property and receive advice on wildfire mitigation. The Carbondale department can be reached during business hours at 963-2491, and the Basalt department can be reached at 704-0675.

That preparation is vital because the local agencies cannot throw as many resources into a firefighting effort as fast as agencies in more urban areas, like California, Thompson said. Hundreds of firefighters from local and federal agencies were on the scene the first day a fire blew up around Lake Tahoe this summer.”We can’t put 50 fire trucks on a fire in the first hour,” Thompson said.However, both fire chiefs lauded the local fire departments in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys as well as the sheriffs’ offices for pooling resources when disaster strikes. There are no turf wars, said Leach. The Carbondale district has 19 subdivisions located in what’s known as the wildland-urban interface. Those are places where homes abut public lands, for example, or subdivisions within thickly wooded private lands. The district has placed a firetruck specially rigged to fight wildfires on the road, patrolling the highest risk areas. Those patrols will continue as long as the drought continues.Thompson and Leach said the rain that fell Thursday only eased the fire danger temporarily. Any benefits of the rain evaporated by Friday.

Thompson said grasses are so dry “they crumple in your hand” up to an elevation of 7,500 feet. Hot, dry conditions are forecast to continue. If Colorado’s typical afternoon showers don’t develop and stay consistently, the fire danger will rise in lands higher in elevation. “I see this getting worse and worse and worse,” said Thompson.Fortunately, they do think year-round residents of the valley are aware of conditions and are taking precautions.”They see a whiff of smoke go up and they’re on the phone,” said Thompson. “Everybody’s on high alert.”Second-home owners who regularly cycle into the valley may not be aware of the fire ban. Both districts are plastering county roads with signs altering people to the fire danger.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com


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