Learning to live with fire in Eagle County
As 2020 takes the record as Colorado's worst fire season ever, locals turn to 'fire adaptive' efforts
A decade ago, it would have been unheard of for Colorado to experience two wildfires that consumed more than 100,000 acres each in a single summer, according to Eagle County Wildfire Mitigation Coordinator Eric Lovgren.
“But in 2020, the hits just keep on coming,” Lovgren noted during a recent discussion with the Eagle County Board of Commissioners. “The 2020 fire season is quickly becoming the worst on record.”
The Pine Gulch Fire that burned in Mesa and Garfield counties, and is now 100% contained, consumed 139,007 acres — nearly 218 square miles — making it the largest wildfire in Colorado history. The Cameron Peak Fire west of Fort Collins in Larimer County was listed at 27% contained Sept. 25 and had burned 104,845 acres. Each of those fires is more than three times the size of the Grizzly Creek blaze that threatened Eagle County earlier this summer.
And those are just the big statistics from Colorado during a fire season that has ravaged California, Oregon and Washington state.
With fire danger becoming a larger issue for residents of the American West, there is really only one way to approach the problem, said county officials.
“We need to learn to live with fire,” Lovgren said.
That doesn’t just mean gathering up important paperwork, deciding what personal possessions are most precious and making an emergency exit plan. Those are all important actions, yes, but learning to live with fire also includes doing everything possible to protect property long before a spark is ignited.
“The good news is we see time and time again that mitigation works,” Lovgren said.
There is work that can be done to make Eagle County more fire adaptive, Lovgren said. Locally, one of the biggest pushes is through a program called REALFire.
REALFire is offered through Eagle County in partnership with the Vail Board of Realtors. The program is celebrating its fifth year and has worked with 320 property owners since 2016.
REALFire is a voluntary effort that offers property owners an assessment of fire risks. “We look at a home through the fire’s view,” said Lovgren. “To a fire, a home is nothing more than fuels.”
He noted that at times, a neighboring property presents fire risks.
“A big part of this program is getting people to talk,” said Lovgren.
Those conversations are nearly always helpful and during this COVID-19 era, they can be vitally important.
“Post COVID, we have people moving in from areas where wildfire isn’t a part of their normal experience,” Lovgren said.
Growing the program
As word has spread about the REALFire program, Lovgren said the program has steadily become more popular.
“I have noted a lot of repeat customers as well,” he said. “We are now looking for how do we increase capacity.”
One aspect of that issue is funding and earlier this month, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management stepped in with cash.
The BLM has awarded an additional $89,000 to Eagle County’s Community Assistance Agreement. This new funding wave will tie into existing tools offered by REALFire and 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.
Beyond that grant, Lovgren noted there is a need for more people who are trained to conduct the REALFire assessments. He has previously tapped local fire departments for help, but there is an obvious drawback to that plan.
“Firefighters tend to get busy fighting fires at the same time people are interested in getting assessments,” Lovgren explained.
Lovgren suggested the county could look for third-party contractors or community partnerships to address the increased demand for fire assessments. Or, alternatively, the county could hire a seasonal or part-time employee to work for the REALFire program. Commissioner Matt Scherr noted that the program, like many of the issues addressed in the county’s climate action plan, might require spending money now to cut costs in the future.
Lovgren agreed, noting that estimates from the Waldo Canyon fire showed that there was a $500 benefit for every $1 spent on mitigation.
“That’s a pretty good return on investment,” Lovgren concluded.
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 email@example.com.
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