Giving Thought: Lake Christine Fire contributions helping to create wildfire adapted communities

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought
Aspen Community Foundation, Lauder event, Aug. 13, 2018.
Steve Mundinger

Wednesday will be a year since the Lake Christine Fire started, beginning what would be another close encounter with wildfire for the Roaring Fork Valley. While the fire came harrowingly close to destroying hundreds of homes in Basalt and El Jebel, we were fortunate that the property loss was minimal and no lives were lost.

The community response to the fire was remarkable: countless people offered food, shelter and clothing to those displaced, others donated food to the shelters and firefighters, hundreds contributed to charitable organizations and participated in fundraising events and, just a couple of weeks ago, 300 people turned out to help reseed Basalt Mountain.

At Aspen Community Foundation, we were humbled to steward contributions from 300 donors to support the immediate relief and recovery efforts for those seriously affected by the fire, particularly our low-income neighbors. Guided by strategies and best practices related to disaster philanthropy, we also looked to the long-term: how do we support efforts to lessen the impact of natural disasters and help the community prepare for future incidents.

Last fall, we hosted a series of public forums in Basalt, Glenwood Springs and Aspen to help the community process the trauma of the Lake Christine Fire and to discuss how we can be better prepared for the next disaster. After these forums, follow-up conversations were held with local fire officials and White River National Forest leaders about how we make our valley more resilient to wildfires. These local fire officials, all of whom were engaged in fighting the Lake Christine Fire, identified ideas that would help their respective departments mitigate the impacts of wildfire and be better prepared to handle the next incident.

For some departments, fighting the fire exhausted their inventory of hose and other equipment critical to fighting wildland fire, leaving them in a precarious position were another fire to spark last summer. To prevent this, Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Authority is working to create a “mobile wildland cache” of equipment that would be available throughout the region for future incidents. According to Roaring Fork Fire Chief Scott Thompson, being “unprepared is not a comfortable feeling for the fire service.” He believes that this plan will ensure the region is well-stocked and ready to respond.

Another idea that arose was creating more accurate maps of neighborhoods and homes, particularly those in the wildland-urban interface. In fact, one participant in those autumn 2018 conversations spoke of the need “to move forward the message of fire-adapted communities,” thus coining the resulting project’s name: “Wildfire Adapted Communities.”

Participating fire departments and districts decided to engage Anchor Point Group, a wildland fire risk assessment company based in Boulder, to create and implement its National Hazard and Risk Model (No-HARM) platform to assess exposure of property in the wildland-urban interface to wildfire impacts. Through curbside assessments, made from the public right-of-way without venturing onto private property, homes are assessed on a scale of 1 to 5, with the results entered into a database. The database will generate GIS maps that display color-coded, house-by-house risk assessments in a user-friendly online form readily accessible to the public.

For homeowners who become interested and request one, participating fire departments can provide free home visits to create detailed and personalized risk assessments of their properties. These detailed assessments will leave homeowners with written notes about risks observed on the property, photos of actual conditions and, most importantly, an individualized action plan with recommendations to reduce the home’s wildfire risk. Recommended steps might include removing woody debris from the property, mowing tall grass near the home, cleaning leaves from gutters, or removing firewood stacks and propane tanks away from a wall. Taken together, these kinds of measures have been shown to demonstrably reduce a home’s wildfire risk.

According to Rick Balentine, Aspen fire chief, the No-HARM maps also are a valuable communication tool for fire departments. “Our job is to inform people of danger and to protect property,” Balentine said. “We can use these maps to work with homeowners on ways to protect their property. And, when the next fire happens, we can show firefighters the lay of the land, what are the risk assessments, which house has been mitigated, etc.”

“My hope for this project is that it will create a widely viewed map of some of our riskier areas and spark more interest in fuels mitigation,” said Glenwood Springs Fire Chief Gary Tillotson. Glenwood Springs, along with the Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District, also are participating in the Wildfire Adapted Communities Project.

With the well-documented threat and incidents of wildfire across the state, more communities are stepping up their wildfire protection action planning. Some, like Roaring Fork Fire, are focused on building equipment resources that are vital to firefighting efforts in rural communities. Others are engaging in efforts similar to the Wildfire Adapted Communities Project. The end goal is the same: to do anything and everything we can — as a community, as a valley, as a region — to reduce the risk of wildfire to our homes, businesses and neighborhoods.

ACF is pleased to have the Lake Christine Fire contributions support the efforts of our local fire officials to make our valley a safer place for residents.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.