Wildfire safety gaining traction | AspenTimes.com

Wildfire safety gaining traction

Jill Beathard
Snowmass Sun

Snowmass Village is starting to get more serious about wildfire mitigation.

The Snowmass-Wildcat Fire Protection District has had an ongoing effort to educate residents about fire mitigation rather than forcing homeowners to take steps. Some individuals have taken action, but Fire Marshal John Mele said he thinks the concept has more traction than ever in his career because the Snowmass Homeowners’ Association, which manages most of the residential neighborhoods in the village, is getting involved.

That’s encouraging to Mele, who said that mitigating individual properties is not enough.

“You really do have to do it as a community effort,” Mele said.

The Snowmass Homeowners’ Association’s Design Committee, which reviews plans for new homes and major remodels in its communities, is starting to encourage builders to use environmentally friendly, noncombustible materials in new homes, said Rick Griffin, vice president of the homeowners’ association. Most local architects understand the problem of wildfires, and some homeowners are interested in mitigating threats, even if that means spending a little more money, he said.

“It sometimes costs more money,” Griffin said. “They just want to do it right.”

Compared with a few years ago, some noncombustible materials are starting to have costs comparable to flammable ones, however, Mele said.

“As we’re doing this, we’re finding that the newer materials are becoming more high-end,” Griffin added.

In the past, homeowners have been reluctant to completely mitigate threats to their residences, and Mele said he thinks it’s because of the cost. It can cost from $900 to $1,200 to protect 1 acre of land in Snowmass, Mele said.

That’s also one of the reasons that the Snowmass Homeowners’ Association doesn’t want to require mitigation from homeowners.

“We could drive locals out of the community by forcing people to do things they can’t afford,” Griffin said.

However, many of those homes and their owners are aging, and as the homes get purchased and remodeled, the Design Committee can address those issues, he said.

Mele also said homeowners can do small things to make a difference. Mitigating threats to a home is not a short-term project, and he estimates that properly completing work on the whole town will take about 10 years.

“You’re not going to completely mitigate your home over a weekend,” Mele said. “It’s a commitment that you have to make.” (See related story on page 5 for some of Mele’s suggestions.)

Why does it matter?

On July 10, fire danger in Snowmass Village was still considered low, as the moisture level of potential fuels was safe. However, that can change very quickly, Mele said.

During years like this one with a wet spring, grasses that grow tall with the precipitation can become highly flammable when they get dry.

“Another concern would be lightning strikes,” Mele said.

On June 25, the fire district made a presentation about wildfire mitigation to the Town Council and brought in Kris Cooper, assistant fire marshal at the Colorado Springs Fire Department, who spoke about his district’s experience fighting the Waldo Canyon fire last summer.

Three hundred forty-seven homes were lost and 47 damaged in the fire, Cooper said. Despite that high number, Cooper said the department saved more than 80 percent of the homes threatened by the blaze. Homes that were protected stood a much better chance of surviving, he said.

Mitigation doesn’t necessarily prevent fires from igniting, but it can help stop them from spreading, Mele said.

“If people mitigate, it allows firefighters to get a better handle on that wildfire early,” Mele said.

Cooper identified the area including Lemond, Sinclair and Oak Ridge roads as one of high concern, Mele said, because of its southern exposure, steepness and dry vegetation. On July 15, a wildfire-mitigation team from Rifle came out to assess the neighborhood.

If a wildfire event were to occur in the village, Mele said the Fire Department would evacuate early and that if residents ever feel threatened, they shouldn’t wait for an evacuation order.

Mele said he thinks a major wildfire event like the one in Waldo Canyon could have “long-lasting implications” on a community like Snowmass, where the landscape drives tourism and tourism drives jobs.

“If we had that type of wildfire, I believe it would be devastating to the economy here,” he said.

Mele didn’t want people to feel overly concerned, however.

“You shouldn’t live your life in fear,” Mele said. “You should just take a reasonable approach.”