Tony Vagneur: Complacency can lead to tragedy in fire country

We twisted up the steep hillside, a place I’d never been before, near the head of Collins Creek, trailing a small herd of cattle. “Grandpa, what are these blackened, burned-out stumps?” I called out. We were in a partial clearing, dotted with black stumps, some 3 or 4 feet tall.

“There was a big forest fire through here around the turn of the century,” said Gramps, who also said much of the valley was on fire that summer, some of it for several years. Since then, those blackened stumps, the last vestiges of long-ago wildfires, deteriorated, toppled and fell, until they were mostly invisible to the inexperienced eye.

And so it is today. There’s not much visible of area forest fires, then or now, which can give us a false sense of comfort and security. Sure, there’s the Big Burn at Snowmass, but that was a very long time ago. Keno and Queen’s Gulch on Aspen Mountain were on fire in 1902, but were part of so many local fires that the newspapers barely reported on them.

“Ain’t gonna be any fires around here,” some say, “we’re too smart to let that happen.” Someone who should’ve known better said a year or two ago, “These forests around here are asbestos forests.” If you were here in 2018, you remember how the huge, disastrous Lake Christine Fire changed the face (and top) of Basalt Mountain overnight, which even at that, could have been much worse. Today, without that memory, the face of the mountain looks healthy and mostly green, which to those who weren’t here then is a misleading, obfuscating look.

It’s easy to think we live in a bubble of safety around here; it’s safe to walk the streets at night, we don’t worry about gang activity, murders are few and far between and our kids aren’t getting kidnapped. But that delicate cocoon can be easily breached, just by one fire.

As Pitkin County Emergency Management Director Valerie MacDonald says, “We are going to have another wildfire here. Don’t know if it will be three days, three weeks, or three years from now. In the meantime, we can’t leave it to luck and everyone needs to be prepared.” Which means everyone should be preparing for the wildfire season by clearing defensible space, hardening their homes and putting together an evacuation plan.

If it wasn’t so serious, one might see humor in the top five reasons people are resistant to prepare for wildfire season, as gleaned from emergency responders in the valley:

— We don’t have wildfires here, we live in paradise

— If we do have a wildfire, it won’t impact me

— I don’t want to see my neighbors

— We just raised our insurance, we are good

— It’s too much work

The tragedy would be in that period of reflection when folks remembered that they actually said such remarkable things in the peaceful time before their house was burned to the ground and a family member was killed or seriously injured in the blaze. Listed below are the five top reasons people should prepare for a wildfire:

— It could save your life

— It could save your home

— It could save your family and pets

— It might improve your ability to retain insurance

— Doing work on your property can protect your neighbors

For more information on how to prepare for a wildfire, go to or call your local fire department for a free wildfire risk assessment on your property.

Yes, there were numerous forest and wildfires in this area over a hundred years ago, which rather than lead to complacency should alert all of us to the fact that, as MacDonald says, we are due again. Maybe this year — maybe in three years, or more, but it’s gonna happen. Let’s tighten it up, people.

Remember, it’s not only about your home, but there are many hikers and backpackers out there in the summer. It takes only a spark to start a wildfire. Be careful with campfires and other flammables, and respect fire restrictions.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at