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Reaching the second homeowner proves difficult when it comes to wildfire mitigation

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Tactics to safeguard mountain resort communities against wildfire are improving but educating residents is still a hurdle. Wildfire officials gathered in Snowmass Village Friday (9/25) to go over new approaches to keeping high country homes from burning down. Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports.

Mountain communities like Snowmass Village have unique problems when it comes to wildfire — many homes are smack-dab in the middle of high risk fire zones. Even though a big fire hasn’t burned here for nearly a decade, Snowmass Fire Marshall John Melesays fire is probable.

"We have the potential to have a severe wildfire in Snowmass Village. In dry years the fuels have that potential to create a fire that would be very difficult to control."

To plan for such a disaster his crew has partnered with the real estate community and local homeowner’s association to mitigate open space areas in neighborhoods.

"We chose visible areas so that the community could see what’s going on and they could see the result."

reporter standup: "Work to clear vegetation and create defensible space was done here, along Brush Creek Road, recently. It’s an important project according to fire officials, because it’s the main entrance to Snowmass Village."

"Since we have started an active role in actually clearing dead and dying fuels and manipulating vegetation, the interest level for mitigation in the community has risen," says Mele.

The problem is, it’s difficult to reach second homeowners — a large group in this community of 1800 year-round residents. In peak season, the population swells to 10,000. Many are second homeowners. The situation’s similar in Vail.

"We have 34 percent full time residents. Half of them don’t own the house they live in."

Paul Cada helps with fire mitigation for Vail Fire and Emergency Services. He says it’s tough to educate a variety of residents.

"So what’s the message we give to a renter who’s living in a house that has no defensible space, a shake roof and old cedar siding versus the absentee partial-share owner that owns three weeks in a $40 million house.”

Cada spoke Friday to a group of fire officials from communities like Ouray, Breckenridge, Edwards and Aspen. His message included suggestions such as creating building codes that require fire resistant construction materials. And, finding funding for mitigation projects in unexpected places, like private foundations. Still, the biggest challenge is getting buy-in from residents. He goes on…

"Or I have the duplex, where the resident on one side who works two jobs to afford their home and other side who hasn’t been to their place in four years and does short-term rentals. It’s an interesting audience and how do you reach all of them with one message? That’s what I struggle the most with."

Parker Lathrop is Deputy Fire Chief with Aspen Fire. 

"Where our challenge lies is that we have a transient population. There are so many second homeowners that reaching out to them and educating them about what we have here compared to other places, is always a challenge."

He agrees education of homeowners is the toughest part of safeguarding communities.

"Some people just assume their landscapers are handling it. We’ve come across houses where when they built the house, they stuck in as many trees as the could. So, it’s just letting them know that some responsibility falls on them, and getting them involved in the process."

Still, the department is moving ahead with its own mitigation projects. Earlier this year, it partnered with Pitkin County to remove a number of large cottonwoods along Red Mountain Road, an area where fire potential is substantial.

The goal with education and mitigation is so when that big fire does happen in a resort area, the community itself isn’t affected by the flames.