‘Defensible space’ fire safeguards kept Eby Creek home from going up in flames | VailDaily.com

‘Defensible space’ fire safeguards kept Eby Creek home from going up in flames

Defensible space made all the difference when Sept. 7 fire sparked north of Eagle

Irrigated pasture provided defensible space for firefighters battling a blaze located north of Eagle along Eby Creek on Sept. 7.
Photo courtesy Susie Kincade

Smart decisions made years ago are why the Eby Creek area north of Eagle didn’t explode in flames on Labor Day.

Instead of having dry, overgrown sage and pinon right next to their residence, the owners had cleared out the area next to their home. They haven’t had horses in their pasture for a dozen years, but they still irrigated the land.

Those efforts provided what fire professionals call “defensible space,” and on Sept. 7, it made all the difference.

What could have been

“If the fire had jumped the creek, we would have been looking at a loss of tens of thousands of acres,” said Eby Creek homeowner Susie Kincade. “It potentially could have turned into a big conflagration.”

Things weren’t looking good shortly after 2 p.m. on Labor Day when Kincade’s partner Mark Chapin first spotted the Eby Creek Fire.

“I was outside and I saw this whisp of black smoke and then it just took off,” said Chapin. “All the wind was pushing it toward the south and there were 30 to 40-foot high flames.”

“I remember seeing a wall of flames from the window in our living room,” Kincade said. “When I called 911, the wind was roaring it toward us.”

Greater Eagle Fire Department crews quickly mobilized and sent out a call for mutual aid. But as firefighters rolled up to the site, they realized they had an opportunity. The irrigated pasture on site meant they had a place to stage and attack the fire directly. That’s what they did and ultimately crews that included Greater Eagle Fire, Gypsum Fire, Eagle River Fire, Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management, Vail Fire, Colorado State Patrol, Eagle County Sheriff’s Office and Holy Cross Electric were able to contain the fire to 1.2 acres and safely evacuate the area.

“Everything came together really nicely as designed, providing a defensible space around the home for firefighters to do what they do best,” said Eric Lovgren, Eagle County wildfire mitigation coordinator. “In this case, these owners are pretty savvy folks who have worked not only with me, but also with the fire department, over a number of years to do defensible space.”

First-hand view

Through a program called  REALFire, Lovgren promotes wildfire education, awareness, and action. Through the REALFire program, local residents can request a property assessment that evaluates the external conditions of their home and landscape to determine its susceptibility to wildfire.

As an expert, Lovgren knows the mitigation strategies he promotes can make a difference. On Labor Day, he had an up-close view of mitigation in action.

“This happened in my own neighborhood,” said Lovgren. “To walk up the hill to see the fire from my own driveway, it changed everything.”

Lovgren noted the danger of the Eby Creek Fire can’t be judged by the acres it burned.

“Look at how far the Grizzly Creek Fire blew up in 20 minutes. This had all the same conditions and fuels. There was a lot of potential,” Lovgren said. “Also, Grizzly Creek was located away from communities. This was right on top of us.”

Having a wildfire defense plan is central to the REALFire model and, in this case, the irrigated pastures were a central line of defense. But when a fire actually threatened, Chapin and Kincade found a big hole in their defense plan.

“Once the power goes out, you are on your own,” Kincade said.

“The lesson learned for us was we had all these plans for how we could defend the house, but we didn’t count on the power going off,” Chapin said. “A generator purchase is in our future. We were worried because our first line of defense was gone immediately without any power.”

But in reality, their first line of defense stood. Kincade noted that fire crews on site applauded the residence’s mitigation efforts.

“We have have had defensible space for 25 years with the pasture. We haven’t had horses for 12 years but we still keep it green,” Kincade said. “It’s a lot of work for us to do that, but clearly it is important. We are so glad we kept them green.”

On the heels of one of the worst fire seasons the American West has ever seen, Eagle County wants more people to follow the Eby Creek example and make smart decisions before a fire strikes. What’s more, there’s now a financial incentive to do the smart thing.

Community assistance

“When homeowners take their own personal responsibility, it makes things so much better for first responders,” Lovgren said. “You can see how these fires can get away from you.”

Eagle County and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management are offering a new opportunity for private landowners and homeowners associations to apply for funding to reduce wildfire risk.

The BLM has awarded an additional $89,000 to Eagle County’s Community Assistance Agreement. The money will be used to provide property owners with financial and technical assistance to safeguard their homes and create fire-adapted communities. Examples of eligible projects include creating defensible space, home retrofits, and community wood chipping days.

“As wildfires continue to be a threat, we want everyone to take advantage of the available resources,” Lovgren said. “It is imperative that homeowners take personal responsibility to prepare for wildfires well in advance of their inevitable arrival in our communities.”

To learn more about program eligibility, or to schedule a free wildfire hazard assessment of a home or property, contact Lovgren at 970-328-8742 or at eric.lovgren@eaglecounty.us

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