Wildfire danger is growing in Pitkin County — do residents care?
Fire officials hope to convince public to step preparations up a notch
After the trauma of the Lake Christine Fire in July 2018 and clear evidence that drought is affecting Colorado, officials in Pitkin County thought residents would be more eager to embrace wildfire precautions.
They were wrong.
As the county commissioners approved last week a proclamation recognizing May as Community Wildfire Preparedness Month, emergency management director Valerie MacDonald lamented that too few residents are taking the threat of wildfire seriously.
It’s a matter of time, she said, before Pitkin County’s “number is up.”
Pitkin County was the only county in northwest Colorado that wasn’t affected by a major wildfire in 2020. The Grizzly Creek fire burned about 36,000 acres in Glenwood Canyon, and it could produce consequences such as mudslides for years. The Pine Gulch Fire in Garfield and Mesa counties torched 139,000 acres.
It wasn’t just lower elevation lands drying up and burning in 2020. The East Troublesome Fire in Grand County swept across 194,000 acres. A fire in Summit County was contained to a small area but presented nasty potential because of the proximity to structures.
“Climate change and the ongoing drought have changed conditions dramatically,” MacDonald said.
Even after a winter of above average snowfall in the Roaring Fork watershed, all of Pitkin County remains classified as “abnormally dry” in the U.S. Drought Monitor conditions released April 28. Nearly all of Eagle and Garfield counties are classified in “moderate drought,” class one of four in the drought monitor.
The decent snowfall this winter could not offset the prior years of drought. The signs are clear that even at Pitkin County’s elevations above 7,000 feet, wildfire presents a bona fide threat these days.
“We have been fortunate but how long will our luck hold?” MacDonald said in an interview after meeting with the county commissioners April 27.
The fire departments with a presence in Pitkin County — Aspen, Roaring Fork and Carbondale — expected an uptick in demand for assessments of their property for wildfire potential after the Lake Christine blaze burned three homes and threatened hundreds more in Basalt and El Jebel in July 2018.
Whatever interest was ignited among homeowners quickly waned.
“We were all disappointed,” MacDonald said. “The vast majority just went on their way thinking it will never happen to them.”
Fire prevention experts urge homeowners to improve their odds of protecting their property from wildfire by thinning brush, keeping gutters free of debris and numerous other tips available at http://www.pitkinwildfire.com.
But MacDonald said property precautions aren’t enough.
“There’s no guarantee that’s going to stop a wildfire,” she said.
Her biggest concern is too many residents haven’t considered an escape plan, haven’t packed a “go bag” of valuables and necessities, and won’t take one of the simplest steps possible to prepare by signing up for emergency alerts.
“After a wildfire in the valley, we don’t want any of our citizens to say, ‘We didn’t know what to do,’” MacDonald said. “We need everyone to take personal responsibility by preparing now to get us through a fast-moving wildfire.”
Evacuation planning isn’t difficult unless a person is first thinking about it on the fly when a fire forces them to flee and the roads are overwhelmed with other motorists. Planning meeting locations and communication plans with family members is vital, MacDonald said.
In the same vein, trying to pack a “go bag” during an emergency is a recipe for disaster. Vital items will be forgotten, so do it in advance.
Most distressing to MacDonald is the fact that only 50% of Pitkin County residents have signed up for emergency notifications at http://www.pitkinalert.org. Those who are ignoring the simple step are depriving themselves of vital information during disasters, she said.
The facts cannot be “sugarcoated,” MacDonald said. The public safety agencies in the Roaring Fork Valley are as prepared as they can be to respond to emergencies, she said. Now the public needs to step up its efforts.
The Aspen, Roaring Fork and Carbondale fire departments will host “Ready Set Go” educational events in coming weeks as part of Community Wildfire Preparedness Month.
The Aspen Fire Department will host its event at the fire station on May 18 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. The Carbondale Fire Department will host its event on May 19 from 6:30-7:30 p.m. at its headquarters at 301 Meadowood Drive. Roaring Fork Fire Rescue will host its event during the Motors on Midland event May 14 in Basalt.
In addition, the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office has launched a new podcast series called “Doin’ Time with the Sheriff.” The first podcast will focus on wildfire threat and what the public can do to reduce that risk. It is available on all major podcast platforms.
(Editor’s note: The date of the Carbondale Fire Department was corrected in this story.)
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