Living in ‘ground zero’ for wildfires

County adopts fire ban amid call for mitigation work

Montezuma County Commissioners implemented a county-wide fire ban Monday. Because of extremely dry conditions, fires are not allowed, including the use of fireworks, controlled burns, camp fires and ditch burning.

County emergency planner Paul Hollar said the potential for fire was considered severe because of dry moisture levels in vegetation.

“The potential for fire is really bad, and dry lightning is predicted for the area,” he told commissioners on Monday.

At a recent meeting in Cortez, Hollar was among many fire officials to advise that planning for wildfires should be on every resident’s mind.

“Across the West, it is extremely dry, and we can expect wildfires,” said Hollar. “The challenge for Montezuma County is fire mitigation and how to pay for wildfires.”

Combined, the Weber and Roatcap fires cost $3 million to put out. Additional fires are inevitable, but how much damage they cause can be managed.

Implementing a regional fire-mitigation plan that creates fire breaks around homes and neighborhoods is critical for safety and the economy, Hollar said. If mitigation is ignored, insurance on homes could skyrocket, or disappear.

“Firms stopped insuring for flood areas, and the same could happen for fire-prone areas. It you can’t get insurance, it hurts the economy, construction, and the real-estate market.”

Hollar praised the Elk Springs subdivision for fire-mitigation efforts prior to the Weber Canyon fire.

“It allowed firefighters to fight the fire. Without their mitigation, the fire would likely have jumped Highway 160 and spread to Cherry Creek,” he said.

Officials estimate that for every $1 spent on mitigation, it saves $4 to $10 on future firefighting efforts.

Drought-stricken Southwest Colorado is ground zero for wildfires, warned Pam Wilson, executive Director for Firewise.

“We’ve suffered through the state’s three largest fires in the last 12 years,” she said.

The popularity of people moving into the forest and along its edge is part of the problem, Wilson said. In Colorado, 21 percent of the wildland interface has been developed, tied with Washington for the highest in the country.

In the 1990s, Colorado had an average of 20,000 acres burn per year. Since 2000, the figure is almost 100,000 acres burned per year on average.

“It is making costs escalate and is causing fire officials to re-evaluate what the role of firefighters is when they hit developed areas. Everyone is looking at who pays,” Wilson said. “The U.S. projects that firefighting costs this year will exceed the budget by $470 million.”

Hollar and Wilson predict that insurance companies may begin assessing whether a community has proper fire-mitigation regulations in their codes to determine rates.

“If we don’t take action on our own, somebody else will make it happen,” Wilson said.

Wildfires would likely be less destructive if a more active timber industry were thinning out the forests, officials said.

“Without timber sales, a fire pushes through because of the fuel buildup,” said Steve Underwood, fire manager for Mesa Verde National Park.

Decades of fire suppression have had unintended consequences, he said.

“If fires in the 1950s had been left to burn, it could have helped create fire blocks for future fires.”

Kent Grant, a forester from Colorado State, warned of the dangers of embers.

“They can travel a mile, and stay hot enough to spark needles near the home, and wooden decks and roofs,” he said.

Scott McDermid, a Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management manager, said vulnerable forests in the area include the Chicken Creek area, the Millwood area, and the forests around Dolores.

“Mitigation around homes and structures in these areas is essential to create a buffer and give firefighters a chance,” he said. “We have fire crews on standby and aviation assets available.”

Getting the word out to homeowners to reduce the fire hazard on their property has been a challenge, officials said.

“We have open houses on how to mitigate for fire, and three people will show up,” said Mancos Fire Chief Tony Aspromonte.

He praised the Cedar Mesa subdivision across from Mesa Verde National Park for its fire-mitigation efforts. A fire station was built, and neighbors regularly meet on the issue and come together to clear brush and thin the forest around homes.

Paul Ruatti, a member of the Cedar Mesa homeowners association, relayed a convincing tactic.

“We have the fire chiefs tour the subdivision, and they point out which homes they would decide to protect based on fire-mitigation efforts, like adequate buffers, and room to bring in equipment,” he said.

Improved monitoring of controlled burns is a focus of the county, said Montezuma County commissioner Keenan Ertel.

“We are requiring that controlled burns be reported beforehand,” he said. “It is more than just a request, and their could be penalties if one gets loose.”

Calling controlled burns in just makes sense, Hollar said, and provides a property owner with more information on conditions.

“When they call in, they learn that it may be calm in the morning, but a red-flag wind warning is expected for the afternoon,” he said.

Hollar said residents should sign up for the sheriff’s office Nixel account to receive updates on their phones of evacuations and closures in case of a fire.

Officials emphasized that homeowners have a personal responsibility to mitigate their properties to minimize risks from wildland fires. State and federal grants are available for help counties defer costs of fire mitigation to protect public infrastructure and create fire breaks.

“The county needs fire-mitigation work – such as along roadways – and grant money is available so lets go after it,” said Rebecca Samulski, of Firewise.

Added Hollar, “As a collective group, we have to work together to make sure our dollars protect our biggest risk areas.”