Wildfire potential sparking concern

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

With images of the Coal Seam fire in Glenwood Springs still smoldering in the public consciousness, Aspen is hoping homeowners here take steps to protect their houses in the event of the unthinkable.

Residences on the city’s periphery, located in high-risk areas for wildfire, are the focus of a new city program aimed at helping homeowners reduce their vulnerability by trimming the tinder-dry vegetation on their properties.

Property owners in four neighborhoods that butt up against the wildlands on the edge of town will soon receive a letter in the mail to explain Aspen’s Wildland Fire Mitigation Program.

Last week, a team of local firefighters and city Parks Department staffers spent a day learning to advise homeowners on what they can do to create a defensible space around their homes in the event flames are racing through the dense trees and undergrowth that have accumulated, unchecked, for years.

“You don’t have to scare them,” forester Vince Urbina instructed the group. “I think they’ve been scared by Glenwood . it’s close to home. We have a teachable moment here with Glenwood Springs. I think we need to take advantage of it.”

Urbina is the assistant district forester for the Grand Junction District of the Colorado State Forest Service.

The wind-driven flames that raced down Red Mountain and threatened Glenwood Springs, burning some 24 homes, ate up a fuel mix of hot-burning, resinous plants that is strikingly similar to what exists on the boundaries of Aspen, according to Stephen Ellsperman, the city’s natural resources manager.

“We have the same exact fuel class. We have large decadent stands of oak brush – overmature and full of a lot of deadwood – a huge amount of oak/serviceberry, which have built up over a century, and some Douglas fir canopy,” he said. “It’s a very volatile fuel type.”

The danger zones identified by the city include the neighborhoods flanking Smuggler Mountain, northeast of the Roaring Fork River, including the McSkimming and Knollwood subdivisions that extend up the lower slopes of Smuggler; the area along Ute Avenue at the eastern base of Aspen Mountain; the Highlands, Meadowood and Marolt neighborhoods between Castle and Maroon creeks; and the Maroon Creek Club homes between Maroon Creek and Buttermilk.

There are other areas of concern for Aspen Fire District officials, like Red Mountain and Mountain Valley, but they are located outside the city limits.

For the high-risk neighborhoods within Aspen, the city will offer free consultations to property owners and free chipping and hauling of any brush or trees that are cut as part of an authorized wildfire mitigation effort. Or, the chips can be left at the site for landscaping.

“People have to participate in their own defense, in their own survival. That’s what the program is all about,” Urbina said. “It’s unreasonable to expect firefighters to come up and defend their structure if they’re not willing to participate.”

@ATD Sub heds:`Meaningful change’

@ATD body copy: The program is strictly voluntary, and the city is not suggesting property owners clear-cut their properties, stressed Darryl Grob, Aspen fire chief. An important clump of trees or certain trees close to a house can be protected with a defensible space around that vegetation, he said.

Many properties have obvious room for improvement just by clearing out dead and dying vegetation, according to Grob.

“Dead and diseased fuels should be the first to go,” he told the group. “If nothing else, if you can get them to remove the slash, the deadfall, and the dead and diseased trees, you will have accomplished something significant.”

In overgrown areas, property owners should tackle what firefighters call “ladder fuels” – places where a fire on the ground can climb from the grasses to underbrush to the treetop canopy. Even cutting the grasses low with a weed trimmer, clearing out some brush and trimming low branches from trees will help, according to Grob.

“We can’t do anything about structures, access, slopes, weather, moisture,” he said. “The only thing we can effectively mitigate are the fuels. There’s a place that we can go in and make meaningful change very quickly.”

On a quick tour of a few neighborhoods around the city, Grob pointed out vegetation so dense it virtually obscured one house on Riverside Drive. The trees and ground cover are green, but they are dry enough to burn easily, he said.

“People need to understand, the trees may look green, but there’s no moisture in them,” Grob said. “We have areas within the city which have incredible fuel loads.”

Aspenites can clear out the fuels that have accumulated, or, eventually, nature will do it for them, he predicted.

Residents who cut down trees as part of an authorized mitigation will still need a permit for the tree cutting, but the $55 fee will be waived, according to Ellsperman. In addition, no mitigation fees will be charged for trees that are removed as part of the program.

On narrow McSkimming Road, clearing out the underbrush may be a daunting task. Dense gamble oak has filled in the spaces between homes built on a steep slope in a subdivision with just one access road.

“This is a definite severe-hazard kind of area,” said Grob. “What are you going to tell these people? One thing I would advise them is to think of another way out.”

In the event of a wildfire in the lower part of the McSkimming neighborhood, a resident’s only way out may be to hike laterally across the face of Smuggler, the chief said. Heading up the mountain would not be advisable. “You can’t outrun it,” he said.

Creating a defensible space around a house may seem like grasping at straws, in the event of a conflagration, but according to Grob, it can make a difference.

A home with a nonflammable roof has a 90 percent chance of surviving a wildfire if it has a defensible zone, compared to about a 15 percent chance if it doesn’t, he said.

A fire advancing through a canopy of trees will “lay down” when it hits a clearing and can’t keep racing through the treetops, Grob explained.

“All of a sudden, the fuel load drops off and the fire drops down,” he said. “The intensity of the fire drops off considerably. We have room to get in and do something, and the fire is down.

“Now of course, if you have a cedar-shake roof, you’ve got another problem.”

If a home doesn’t have that defensible space, Blair Elliot knows first-hand how a fire crew may respond. A captain with the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department and Parks Department supervisor, Elliot was on a crew assigned to protect the Glenwood Springs water plant from the Coal Seam blaze.

The crew inspected an enclave of about 20 homes below the water plant as they braced for the advancing flames. They tagged all but two of the residences with an orange ribbon – a signal to firefighters that the home was indefensible – a signal to “let it burn” if it came to that, Elliot said.

“It’s really hard to have to tell people, `Sorry, we can’t defend your home,'” he said.