Fire Officials: It Takes A Village

May 13, 2013

It’s easy to not think about wildfires just yet. But local officials in the Roaring Fork Valley are working together to make sure you’re getting ready for fire season. Fire departments, the red cross, and other emergency services are trying out a way of getting the word out. It’s part of a new national and international effort, to make it easier for people to understand how to get ready for--and survive--wildfire season. Aspen Public Radio’s Elise Thatcher went to the first meeting in the series, to find out what’s new this year.

“...Purple name tags are going to stay in here with me to start...”

About twenty people gathered at the Basalt Fire station in El Jebel.They toured presentations by wildfire specialists, emergency command folks, the Red Cross, among others.  In the past, those groups had put out their own pamphlets or websites with wildfire do’s and don’ts.  Jerry Peetz is Basalt’s Deputy Chief. He says meetings like this are part of a new era.

“It consolidates everyone’s message into one, concise, message to the public that they need to take some responsibility for wildfire.”

Eric Lovgren, Wildfire Mitigation specialist for Eagle County, explains how to protect a home.
Credit Elise Thatcher

And that’s a message that may be especially important after Colorado’s devastating fire season last year. The new idea started a few years ago in fire-prone Southern California; the international association of fire chiefs picked it up soon after. Now departments across the US are putting it in place.

“Eagle County put this on last year over in Avon, Vail, and those areas. So us having a little corner of Eagle County in Basalt, we decided to put one on here, and go ahead and do it throughout the Valley.”

Eric Lovgren is Wildfire Mitigation specialist for Eagle County. Mitigation is an official word for clearing trees and other efforts to make it harder for a home to catch fire. Much to the chagrin of fire chiefs and insurance agents... not enough people are doing that. Lovgren said the Waldo Canyon fire showed the stakes are higher than even fire experts realized.

“Anyone recognize this neighborhood? Mountain Shadows subdivision, right. This particular fire sort of redefining about what that urban interface is. Tight housing density, not a dense forest.”

Credit Elise Thatcher

Urban interface is how experts describe where the forest overlaps or meets with where people live. Deputy Chief Peetz said he noticed that change, too.... after the Waldo Canyon fire tore through Colorado Springs last summer.

“And it definitely woke me up that where I live, in my subdivision, which is not near urban interface, is prone to wildfires.”

So it’s even more important to get rid of things that can burn around or on one’s home, because it really can make a difference in protecting  a home. Peetz said the Waldo Canyon Fire highlighted something else, too.

“It’s not just the trees that catch your house on fire. It’s what your house is built out of. Is the significant factor in why it’s going to burn down.”

Which can sound depressing. But two locals say they were inspired by the meeting. Maureen and David Kerr live in Missouri Heights. David says he was surprised by what he learned.

“How many things I really didn’t know. That could really affect it, like woodpiles and BBQ’s with propane tanks and the low lying fires that can come very low and can come up under your decks. Because we all want to keep things where they’re convenient.”

And Maureen Kerr said the couple decided to do something right away.

“I think our number one thing is we live in a neighborhood that’s very green and grass is all around, but we have our firewood stacked right up against the side of our house. On the deck--on the wood deck! So that’s going to get moved this weekend, for sure.”

And that has to be music to the ears of fire officials and insurance agents. The next meeting is for Aspen residents in the City of Aspen Fire Protection District. That’s on June 6th at the fire station on East Hopkins.