Giving Thought: Preventing wildfire and preparing for it, too

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought
Tamara Tormohlen
Steve Mundinger

At this moment, a handful of wildfires are already burning in Colorado at an early stage of summer 2021. It’s hard to overlook the haze in the air, and the dry, brittle look of the vegetation up and down the Roaring Fork Valley.

Welcome rains over the weekend and earlier this week helped to slow down the Sylvan Fire, which had previously threatened the upper Frying Pan Valley, and it appears firefighters have gained the edge there.

However, among the seven wildfires burning across the state’s Western Slope, only two have been fully contained and more than 20,000 acres have already been torched. So, while we should all celebrate the respite provided by the recent rains, it will still take a conscious, collective effort to ensure summer 2021 isn’t defined by smoke-filled skies and a nagging sense of agitation and dread.

It’s tinder-dry out there, dear readers, and all of us must be vigilant.

This valley includes parts of three counties — Eagle, Garfield and Pitkin — all of which declared Stage 2 fire restrictions in June (Garfield is going back to Stage 1 on Friday for only county land). Check any of the county government websites for details on these prohibitions but know that both fireworks and campfires of any kind aren’t allowed on public or private land. You’re not even allowed to smoke a cigarette outdoors unless you’re in an area free of combustible materials.

Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo was blunt when announcing the restrictions June 22.

“My deputies will enforce this fire restriction and will issue citations to those who violate it,” DiSalvo said. “We once again find ourselves in an extreme fire season. With the numerous wildfires in surrounding counties and having seen the long-range forecast, we know we must do everything we can to deter and prevent human-caused fires.”

In many ways, preventing wildfires comes down to common sense. What currently worries fire fighters and first responders is a potential nosedive in common sense around the July 4 holiday. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Coloradans flocked to their public lands in greater numbers than ever before and often failed to clean up after themselves, leaving behind everything from beer cans to human waste to smoldering embers. We can only hope that Independence Day revelers have gotten the message about fire risk and will be cautious and mindful.

That said, I do have good news to report. This community has learned from experience what to do when disaster strikes — not only to fight a fire and minimize harm from the blaze itself, but also to respond to victims in the aftermath and help them recover. Following that comes the effort to reduce the risk of future fires while also preparing for the ever-present possibility that they’ll occur anyway.

In other words, ACF and all its local government and nonprofit partners are ready to assist in case a wildfire does erupt in our valley this summer. Our vehicle for disaster relief is called the Community to Community Fund, which we created in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, when Roaring Fork Valley residents wanted to lend a helping hand to victims of the devastating flooding in Louisiana. Since then, the fund has been deployed to help people in the wake of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the 2013 flooding in Boulder, and several other devastating hurricanes. More recently, the fund helped individuals and families impacted by nearby wildfires such as the Lake Christine Fire in 2018 and Grizzly Creek Fire in 2020.

Money raised for the Community to Community Fund is disbursed not directly to fire victims but to nonprofits and agencies actively helping those who need it. I touch on all of this to tell readers that the Aspen Community Foundation stands ready to help if wildfire strikes our region again, as it has twice in the past few years.

In the meantime, we plan to celebrate July 4 without explosives, fireworks, sparklers or anything else that’s flammable. Together, we can enjoy the holiday — and, ideally, the entire summer — without the threat of wildfire.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.