How can a home survive a wildfire?
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – This could be a long wildfire season, and people involved in the business of fighting those fires are nervous, and planning for what might come.
Local fire departments last week sent three trucks and crews to help fight the Lower North Fork Fire in Jefferson County. That fire claimed three lives, destroyed more than two dozen structures, including several homes, and burned more than 4,100 acres. The local crews were among more than 500 firefighters on the scene.
If a big fire happens in Eagle County, local fire managers hope they’ll get outside help, too.
Eagle County Wildfire Mitigation Manager Eric Lovgren said that the total resources available in Eagle County might add up to 50 trucks and crews. Since it usually takes two trucks to respond to a home fire, the math gets scary, and fast, for a wildfire near a subdivision of even 100 homes.
And fighting a wildfire is a lot different than fighting a structure fire, Lovgren said. While a homeowner and maybe a few neighbors might be affected by a house fire, Lovgren said wildfires are really “community fires,” because they require so many people to fight.
“A structure fire usually takes one department – a wildland fire combines fire departments, federal and state agencies, police, and sometimes private companies,” Greater Eagle Fire Protection District Division Chief Tom Wagenlander said.
Big wildfires often have economic impacts on tourism, too. When former Gov. Bill Owens said “all of Colorado is burning,” during wildfires about a decade ago, he may have meant it as a statement of solidarity, but it sounded to many like a message to visitors to stay away.
Wildfires can also create something relatively new – blazes that combine the worst of structure fires and wildfires when they start to burn in areas called the “wildland-urban interface.” Eagle County has a number of those areas, from Red Hill in Gypsum to East Vail.
Sometimes, those fires can burn so hot, and so fast, there’s no chance to do anything but get out as quickly as possible. In those cases, all the precautions in the world aren’t going to help. Often, though, fires present opportunities to those fighting them. Which means sometimes homeowners can get lucky as a wildfire passes through a neighborhood.
“But luck favors the prepared,” Wagenlander said. Wagenlander has been a firefighter for about 30 years, from hot shot wildland firefighting crews to town fire departments. He’s seen fire take some homes and leave others. Those that are left usually have owners who have tried to prepare for disaster.
“You choose where and how to fight a fire,” Lovgren said. “Homeowners can ready the battlefield … that way one engine can protect several homes.”
While Eagle County and other jurisdictions have started writing their land use codes to reflect more wildfire-aware building techniques and materials, there are a lot of homes in the valley that still have fire-prone roofs and siding.
Lovgren said some homeowners associations, particularly in Cordillera and Beaver Creek, have taken steps to create what firefighters call “defensible space” around homes. In some cases, associations hire crews to do the work of clearing trees and brush. But those in other areas may need to act individually.
The county’s fire districts and Lovgren’s office will conduct fire-protection evaluations for interested homeowners. Sometimes, the to-do list will include big items, like replacing cedar shingles with tile or asphalt shingles. But other times the list includes little things, like putting fine mesh around places in a roof where birds can nest, cleaning gutters, or even moving firewood from the back deck to the back of the yard during the summer.
Those are the things beyond clearing trees and brush from around a home that can help firefighters win that single battle, Lovgren said.
But there are any number of those individual battles in just about any wildfire. And, while there are no guarantees that even the best-prepared home can survive a wildfire, planning and preparation can help. So can an understanding of just where many of us live.
“Nature has always burned,” Wagenlander said. “People need to realize they’re the aliens in these environments.”
Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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