Eagle County begins wildfire preparedness month
Now is the time to prepare for wildfire season
This week, Eagle County and each of its municipalities signed resolutions proclaiming May as Wildfire Preparedness Month. As the name implies, this initiative serves to remind community members that now is the time to take the important steps that will protect your home, your loved ones and your health in the event of a forest fire.
Four out of the five largest wildfires in Colorado have occurred within the last five years. The most destructive fire in state history, The Marshall Fire, started on Dec. 30 of last year and destroyed 1,084 homes in Boulder County. Here in Eagle County, wildfire season came early, with the wind-fueled Duck Pond Fire in Gypsum spreading to 99 acres just a few weeks ago in April.
Eric Lovgren, the county’s wildfire mitigation specialist, said that such unprecedented weather conditions should be a wake-up call to everyone that the prevalence of wildfires has increased dramatically in recent years, and it is essential to be prepared for the worst.
“The climate piece shouldn’t be lost on anybody, that we had a snow day and a wildfire with evacuations within five days of each other,” Lovgren said. “That, to me, is extreme weather.”
The guidelines for preparing for a wildfire are organized into three simple categories: Ready, Set, Go. As the weather gets warmer and the land grows drier, preparing your home, being tapped into alerts and emergency communication systems, and having an evacuation plan will heighten your chances of protecting yourself and your property if the flames start to close in.
Eagle County has created a series of four tasks, one for each week of May, that will ensure community members are properly prepared for wildfire season. The schedule can be found at ECEmergency.org, under the “wildfire” tab.
“Looking at the amount of fire activity we’ve seen over the last five years, looking at how many more events we’re seeing into the spring and fall, the shoulder seasons, and then how dry it’s getting in the higher elevation areas, I don’t know that there’s too many places in Eagle County that shouldn’t be thinking about preparing for the impacts of fire,” Lovgren said.
Ready: Prepare the battleground
One of the most effective ways to protect your home from the threat of forest fires is by identifying and getting rid of wildfire hazards on your property that could fuel a burn. Lovgren describes this step as “preparing the battleground,” and likens it to the way that 300 Spartan soldiers were able to hold off hundreds of thousands of Persian adversaries in the famous Battle of the Thermopylae, as dramatized in the movie “300.”
“They chose where they fought, they chose their battleground, they prepared it, and they were able to do a lot with a little,” Lovgren said. “Of course, that’s a movie, but that’s the metaphor for what we’re trying to do with fire mitigation.”
Fire mitigation does not only serve the homeowner’s interest, but contributes to a community-wide service that lowers the risk of a fire spreading quickly through a neighborhood due to abundant sources of fuel. It also gives firefighters more time to control the flames.
Some of these mitigation steps are small, regular efforts like cleaning leaves and debris out of gutters, sweeping underneath decks, trimming back trees and cutting lawns. To identify more thorough steps to take, all residential properties in Eagle County have access to free REALfire property assessments, which are conducted by members of the county’s mitigation team.
Homeowners can complete an online application form, and schedule a free assessment of their home ignition zone, analyzing features such as the construction and combustibility of roofing and siding materials, windows, vents, decks; landscaping features, such as type and location of trees, bushes and other vegetation; and the location of other accessory structures, propane tanks, and storage of firewood. An assessment typically takes two to four hours, and property owners or caretakers are expected to be home for the duration of the assessment.
At the end of the assessment, the homeowner will receive a list of mitigation actions specific to their property, and if they complete all of them, they receive a REALFire certificate.
While earning a certificate does not guarantee that your house will be safe from a wildfire, it heightens the odds that your property will survive, and the more houses that are fire mitigated in Eagle County, the better chance firefighters have to control a residential burn.
“These state and federal agencies can’t come in and fix your roof or cut down your trees on private property, so those homeowners, those homeowners associations, those property managers all down the line, that’s where we want to make the biggest call to action,” Lovgren said.
Set: Access up-to-date information
Having up-to-date information on fire restrictions, active wildfires and evacuation orders is critical for making safe decisions during wildfire season.
The best place to check for fire restrictions and prohibited activities is ECEmergency.org. The website has an interactive map of the county that colors each area according to its restrictions: green for no fire restrictions, yellow for stage one, red for stage two, and black for complete fire ban. Once you click on an area, a link is provided for more information on prohibited activities under each restriction level.
The most effective way to receive timely wildfire and evacuation notifications is by signing up for EC Alerts. Subscribers to the free notification service can choose to receive emergency messages to their phone, desktop and/or mobile device based on chosen alert areas and categories. You can also opt in to emergency notifications by phone for certain geographic zones or neighborhoods. EC Alerts is also available through the Everbridge phone application.
It is just as important to provide information in this preparatory stage as it is to receive it. In order for firefighters and emergency services to perform their roles most efficiently, it is highly beneficial for them to have pertinent information about the households that they are trying to protect. On Eagle County Community Connect, residents can provide information about their property, the people in their household, identify people with mobility or other functional needs, and list pets. With this information at hand, firefighters can better respond and make decisions during an emergency.
Lovgren emphasized how important these alert systems and communication lines are for maximizing the efforts of first responders and keeping them safe during a fire.
“This has been a complaint that I hear on my side of things from emergency responders, is they are spending so much time chasing around 911 calls, bad intel, somebody’s not out kind of stuff, that they’re putting themselves in danger and they’re not able to firefight because they’re chasing things around,” Lovgren said.
If each community member can take responsibility for staying aware of encroaching wildfires and knowing how to respond, it will keep the firefighters’ attention where it is needed most.
Go: Have an exit strategy
The final step to prepare for a wildfire is to have an evacuation plan and be prepared to potentially return to a home that has burned down.
The county recommends that each resident have an emergency checklist prepared ahead of time that covers the essential “6 P’s” — people and pets, papers and important documents, prescriptions, pictures and memorabilia, personal computers, and plastic — in reference to credit cards and cash. Identifying these can’t-lose items before the panic of an evacuation sets in will allow quicker movement and more rational decision making during a potentially life-changing event.
The Ready.gov website lists a number of additional steps, including having a designated evacuation route, and if possible a planned location where you know you can stay during an evacuation, as well as creating a basic disaster supplies kit should you be uprooted for a sustained length of time.
Lovgren also recommends that people check their insurance before a wildfire occurs, and gather important information for making claims should they lose their homes. He said that an easy way to account for everything in the home is to take a video, documenting all of the belongings that you would want replaced.
Preparing your exit strategy now will make the evacuation process safer and easier for everyone, because when the order to evacuate comes, Lovgren said that the goal for all residents is simply to get out as quickly as possible.
“The reality is, if you aren’t ready for the fire environment, you aren’t ready for the fire environment,” Lovgren said. “It’s going to be smoky, it’s going to be chaotic. It could be black as night. You are going to be panicked, and the last thing you want to do is be a liability to yourself or your family or those firefighters that are there.”
With wildfires increasing in size and frequency across the nation, smoke and air quality have become a growing public health issue in Eagle County. Though there were few fires in close proximity to our valley last summer, smoke from the record-setting blazes in California, Oregon and other states caused areas across Colorado to become clouded in haze.
In reaction to this growing issue, the county is introducing a new Eagle County Smoke Ready plan this summer that will contain information about how to react to changing air quality conditions.
Morgan Hill, the county’s environmental health manager, is spearheading the Smoke Ready campaign.
“We know that with our changing climate, we are going to be impacted by wildfire smoke on a much more regular basis, and probably every summer,” Hill said. “We have a number of different community sectors that need information when we have a wildfire smoke event, and what steps they need to take, so we’re making sure that we have all those resources available on our website or wherever it’s the easiest for people to access.”
Hill said that the plan should be completed by the end of June, and that it will be a living document that changes in accordance with needs and conditions on the ground.
Over the past few years, the county has purchased a number of air quality monitors that are placed throughout the valley, and can be read at all times on fire.airnow.gov. Similar to the fire restriction map, users can see each of the monitors on a map of Eagle County, colored in accordance with the air quality index that it is registering at that time. The map also includes an “actions” section, which provides guidelines for the current AQI. Guidelines are different for higher risk populations — such as children under 5, people over 65, and those with pre-existing respiratory conditions — and normal risk populations.
In most cases, a raised AQI will lead to recommendations of reduced outdoor activity, and reduced intensity of activities, to prevent adverse health effects of smoke inhalation. One point of preparation that Hill recommends is installing an air cleaner or filtration system to keep indoor air clean.
“We encourage everyone who can to buy a portable air cleaner for their home or office building, especially in Eagle County,” Hill said. “A lot of homes don’t have central air conditioning, and they rely on opening their windows at night to cool the home. So when the air quality is poor and we have a lot of smoke in the air, it’s tough to decide sometimes if you should open your windows at night. That’s why we recommend trying to keep indoor air clean with that filter.”
Hill acknowledged that many people are required to be outdoors for work, and said that anyone who is working outside in poor air quality conditions should wear an N95 face mask and try to find times during the day to rest in an indoor space with clean air.
“We are planning to work with our businesses and buildings that do have those spaces so that people know they can go to that place when we do have smoky air,” Hill said.