Snowmass cannot ignore wildfire risk

John Mele
Special to the Snowmass Sun

This June, the town of Snowmass Village and the Snowmass-Wildcat Fire Protection District met for a workshop meeting to discuss the wildfire threat to our village. We also had Assistant Fire Marshal Kris Cooper, from the Colorado Springs Fire Department, share with us his experiences concerning community wildfire-mitigation programs and the successful aftermath in his community after two devastating conflagrations — the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires.

The fact is that they did lose many homes in these wildfires, but many more were saved by employing wildfire mitigation and “home hardening” using noncombustible building materials.

Two factors have emerged as the primary determinants of a home’s ability to survive a wildfire — the quality of the surrounding defensible space and the home’s ignitability. While it is often cost-prohibitive to alter the building materials of an existing home all at once, it should certainly play an important role in future decisions when considering upgrades. It also might be easier and less expensive than you think to reduce the fuel (vegetation and other ignitable material) around the home.

The key to successful mitigation is to not be overwhelmed by the task and to take the project on in small, manageable chunks. This year, maybe cut back the tall weeds and remove the clutter that has grown or accumulated beneath your wooden decks. Next year, tackle the pruning of tree branches that are encroaching and rubbing on your roof shingles. Also, limb and thin trees that are in close proximity to your structures.

The key to successful mitigation is to not be overwhelmed by the task and take the project on in small manageable “chunks.”

Stick with it year after year, and soon you will have the resemblance of a “defensible space” around your property. Just something as simple as making sure that your house address is visible from the road is a positive step in the right direction and is often overlooked.

There are also many small ways to improve the survivability of your home by choosing noncombustible building materials when building or remodeling your home’s exterior. Just by replacing wood decking material with a plastic composite decking on your house not only saves on future maintenance costs but lessens the home’s chances of catching fire from flying embers should a wildfire occur in the area.

During a tour of the village, Cooper was quick to point out to me that our entire community is at risk of a catastrophic wildfire, like most neighborhoods in the wildland urban interface on the Western Slope of Colorado. However, in a recent letter to me, one area that continued to play out in his mind was the neighborhood north of Brush Creek Road along Oak Ridge, Lemond and Sinclair roads. Primarily because of the continuous fuel load, steep slopes and very narrow roads, we need to put a focus on mitigating threats and helping these property owners find solutions to create defensible space and to be prepared. I am encouraged by the Snowmass Homeowners’ Association’s willingness and recent efforts to help all of us in finding some of these important answers.

In Cooper’s own words, “Homeowners must take steps now to mitigate their property. The town and homeowners’ associations must find ways to mitigate open space. And the regulating agencies, builders and developers must come together to make the changes in how the community develops and builds future properties.”

These are words of experience that we should not ignore.

In the coming weeks, the Snowmass Sun has offered to help us by providing a small section of space for us to focus on more specific wildfire-safety messages. I also look forward to any specific wildfire concerns the community may want us to address. In the meantime, please check out the Snowmass-Wildcat Fire Protection District’s website at for more information, or call me at 970-923-2212. We will be happy to give your home a free wildfire inspection tailored to your specific site.

John Mele is the fire marshal of the Snowmass-Wildcat Fire Protection District.