Pitkin County 'Perfectly Primed' For Wildfire

Jun 19, 2018

John Mele, fire marshal for Basalt and Snowmass Village, points out areas where past work has helped cut down on fire danger in Snowmass.
Credit Elizabeth Stewart-Severy / Aspen Public Radio

Eight wildfires now burn in Colorado, and Roaring Fork Valley communities are under fire restrictions because of hot, dry, windy conditions.


This has local experts like John Mele concerned. Mele is fire marshall in Basalt and Snowmass Village, where about 70 percent of town is at high risk of wildfire. On a recent hot, dry day in June, Mele pointed out why one neighborhood, The Pines, makes him particularly nervous.

The large homes are surrounded by dead and dying trees and shrubs. If a fire ignites in these dry conditions, those would provide a lot of continuous fuel.

"So that fire's going to burn extremely hot and make it difficult for firefighters to get a handle on it, and it also makes it difficult for residents to get out," he said.

The Pines was built before Snowmass’ most recent code update, and most of these houses have roofs with highly flammable wood shingles.


“If there's one single thing to point to that causes homes to catch fire in a wildfire, it's shake shingle roofs and flying embers,” Mele said.

These houses butt right up against the forest, and that’s not rare in Pitkin County, where more than half of development is right next to wild lands. Like so many places in the West, the woods around here aren’t particularly healthy.


"I wouldn't say it's a dying forest, but it's definitely a forest that's in a little bit of trouble," Mele said.

A dying stand of aspen trees in Snowmass Village. This was part of a 2016 fire mitigation project, and those trees have been removed.
Credit Courtesy of John Mele

In a difficult irony, that’s in part because there hasn’t been a wildfire near here in at least 70 years.


"And you need that kind of an ecological event for the forest and the plants to regenerate," he explained.

Because there hasn’t been a major wildfire in this area in so long, some officials are worried that people have been lulled into thinking it won’t ever happen here.


"Our days are numbered. It will happen here one day, and we're perfectly primed," said Valerie MacDonald, Pitkin County’s emergency manager. "I think everyone knows we're in a drought. It’s bone dry."


She and Mele agree that people need to prepare. Mele has worked with homeowners' associations to help them identify specific ways to protect the areas around homes.


Crews were recently working in dense trees near a trail through the Fox Run neighborhood.

“When wildfire hits this type of landscape, it runs,” Mele explained.

Fires gain in intensity as they consume fuels, which can be everything from vegetation to shingle roofs. As a wildfire grows, it moves skyward, spreading through the tops of trees, in what’s called a crown fire.

When crews mitigate, they clump vegetation together to create space between the trees and remove any dry fuels. When this works, the fire drops back to the ground, where it isn’t as intense.The goal isn’t to prevent wildfires -- that’s impossible.


“It gives everybody time. It gives firefighters time, and it breaks up that continuity of fuels," Mele said.

Individual homeowners can do a lot of this work, too. On the southwest side of Snowmass, Mele helped one homeowner take steps to protect his house.

"He's got a metal roof, he's got stucco. He's got composite decking," Mele pointed out. "In other words, he's made some effort. Rather than wood mulch, we talked him into rock mulch."

Things like removing firewood and clearing space around your home can make a big difference, and officials say it’s critical that individuals step up, even though it can be expensive and time consuming.


“The public's expectations of what local government can do during a catastrophic disaster in the county will immediately exceed our capabilities," MacDonald said. "We need everyone to take personal responsibility to get the work done.”

Mele is quick to point out that it’s not just outdoor work that can be a lifesafer. Being prepared goes beyond mitigation.


"That includes your go-kits; that includes evacuation plans; that includes making sure you have things for your pets," he said.  

If an evacuation order comes, families need to know how to respond, quickly.


“If you don't have a plan, the normal person is just going to stall out, and that’s a very bad option in a fast-moving wildfire,” MacDonald said.

Even with fire restrictions in place, there's no sure way to prevent wildfire, but planning ahead can help buy time — and save homes.