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Wildfire Planning For Aspen, Pitkin County Starts While It's Still Snowing

Apr 2, 2014

A group of City of Aspen, Pitkin County and Aspen Fire Protection District workers examine a neighborhood east of Aspen. It's one area that has just one route out. The group's trying to find where to place an alternate route in case of an emergency, like a wildfire.
Credit Marci Krivonen

Even though there’s still snow on the ground, local planning is already happening around wildfires. Prompted by large and destructive fires in recent years, the City of Aspen, Pitkin County and the local fire protection district are working together to make neighborhoods safer. Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports.

It’s lightly snowing in a neighborhood east of Aspen as firefighter Parker Lathrop makes his way up a winding, paved road.

"We’re heading up Mcskimming. We’re going to look at a possible connection between Mcskimming, Mountain Valley and possibly Knollwood, utilizing Ute Cemetery and other connection points down the road," he says.

Lathrop is the Deputy Fire Marshal for the Aspen Fire Protection District. He’s meeting with City and County employees in a neighborhood with only one way out.

"It’s always good in every neighborhood to have two ways out, if not more. Aspen is unique in that most of our neighborhoods are one way in, one way out everywhere, so we’re trying to look at options to give homeowners a second way out of their homes, if need be."

Maps are handed out and the group of engineers, community development workers and emergency officials heads to a hillside to scan the surroundings of loosely-spaced homes tucked in thick vegetation.

Aspen Deputy Fire Marshal Parker Lathrop examines a map, while Travis Elliott, with the City of Aspen, stands in the background.
Credit Marci Krivonen

The fear in this area is fire creeping up the hillside from below, leaving homeowners without an escape. Luckily, Aspen’s high elevation and relatively healthy forests make large destructive wildfires less likely than in other parts of the state. 

"The fire threat’s not as great up here as it would be on the Front Range but that doesn’t mean after a few drought years we’re not going to see extreme fire behavior up here. So, in the past it wasn’t really on the front burner, but after we saw what happened in Colorado Springs and Boulder in the past few years, we start looking at what we can do up here that’s going to carry into the future," says Lathrop.

This kind of intensive focus on prevention is new, along with the collaboration between the fire district, City and County. Sure, each entity provides their own fire mitigation efforts but this year, the number of measures to prevent wildfire is increasing. Cindy Houben is Pitkin County’s Community Development Director.

"I think what’s really great this year is that the City of Aspen, Pitkin County and the Aspen Fire District have worked hard together to come up with priorities for evacuation routes, pooling our resources to get people on the ground and do assessments on their properties and to also get the word out that there’s a lot that individuals can do for themselves," Houben says.

Besides visiting dead-end neighborhoods, a wildfire task force made up of representatives from the three entities is working on several other things, like updating a community map pin-pointing high risk areas, mitigating public lands and creating incentives for entire neighborhoods to make their properties more fire resistant.

Back on the outskirts of Aspen, the group discusses possible routes out of another neighborhood. Deputy Fire Marshal Parker Lathrop says the fire season in the Valley is growing longer, with recent fires starting as early as April. So, additional preventative measures are key.

"Your biggest tools now in wildfire are prevention and preparedness. The focus of wildfire has shifted over the past five or six years and we’re seeing that now and that’s where our planning has to go, is, we want to do this early and often so if we ever do get this event, we’re not trying to play catch-up," says Lathrop.

The wildfire team’s efforts are expected to roll out to the public in May.