Ordinance passed to help “harden” Snowmass Village against wildfire
After little discussion, the three Snowmass Town Council members present at the Dec. 16 regular meeting unanimously approved an ordinance that strengthens the village’s wildfire protection code.
The new ordinance, which amends three chapters of the Snowmass Village Municipal Code, is a generalized reform of the town’s fire protection requirements to help “harden” the community to the threat of wildfire.
For Snowmass locals and developers, it means Roaring Fork Fire Rescue officials will review future development plans and new construction projects on existing sites, recommending appropriate mitigation techniques that will be checked and approved by Town Council.
For John Mele, longtime local fire marshal for the Roaring Fork fire authority, it’s partially the result of over a decade of prevention and education efforts in the village area, and a step in the right direction in making Snowmass a more resilient community.
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“The community determines the level of fire protection they want, we work for the community,” Mele said. “This is a more appropriate code for the wildland-urban interface that we live in and it’s ultimately what the community wants.”
On a recent afternoon in Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Station 45 on Owl Creek Road, Mele and Fire Chief Scott Thompson talked about the importance of community wide buy-in to wildfire protection and mitigation efforts.
The Roaring Fork fire officials said the reality is that there aren’t enough resources in the valley to protect all of the Snowmass Village structures if a wildfire were to ignite, and that mandated and voluntary structure “hardening” efforts can make all of the difference.
Some of these efforts include clearing roofs, gutters and yards of debris; using non-combustible building materials in new development projects; and manipulating vegetation to create a buffer and defensible space around a structure.
A recent study on the effectiveness of wildfire mitigation in certain areas affected by the Lake Christine Fire backs Mele and Thompson up. According to the Community Wildfire Planning Center post-fire study, property mitigation in place in or near the El Jebel Mobile Home Park and Missouri Heights supported firefighters in their suppression efforts, creating a more efficient response to the Lake Christine Fire.
“Based on the results of this study, wildfire regulations and proactive voluntary measures must continue to be actively supported and integrated into the planning process to prepare for future wildfire incidents,” the August 2019 study stated.
“Mitigation activities support the ability for firefighters to safely respond to residential areas threatened by fire, and in most typical WUI (wildland-urban interface) disaster situations may be the only available strategy that enables homes to survive when suppression resources are overwhelmed, or simply not available.”
Both Roaring Fork fire officials said they feel the Lake Christine Fire two summers ago contributed to the community’s desire for more proactive protection against wildfire, and said the authority usually visits 20 to 25 Snowmass homes a summer to do free, voluntary inspections.
“When there’s smoke in the sky, people call, but as soon as the sky is blue we don’t hear from many,” Thompson said of locals asking for the fire authority to recommend hardening measures for their homes or businesses.
But while the Lake Christine Fire is drifting further into the rearview mirror, wildfires are certain to continue in the years ahead as the new reality of the West.
According to Patrick Kieran, acting mitigation and education specialist for the Upper Colorado Interagency Fire and Aviation Management Unit (UCR), and Lathan Johnson, UCR deputy unit fire management officer, forest health in areas across the Rocky Mountain region, including Colorado, is deteriorating as different tree species miss their natural fire cycles, becoming more susceptible to disease, forest pests and resulting in more underbrush and debris.
That’s why in certain areas of the White River National Forest this spring, Kiernan and Johnson said there are planned prescribed burns to help regenerate the forest ecosystem.
But the UCR officials also said that although fire authorities do their best to remove debris and mitigate fire threats in local forests, especially among the wildland-urban interface, wildfire has the potential to further impact the Roaring Fork Valley.
“This cycle of catastrophic fires across the West is a thing of the norm now,” Kieran said. “But we can lessen the impact if people are properly educated.”
In Snowmass Village specifically, Mele and his fire protection team have worked diligently to reduce the amount of potential fuels a wildfire could latch onto and to educate locals on how to harden their homes and businesses.
Now with the reinforcement of the new ordinance, Mele said the team hopes more can be done to protect Snowmass Village for years to come.
“It’s a shared responsibility. We all have to do more to be resilient,” Mele said. “Now we can be more proactive versus reactive and build safety in the community.”
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