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Stay home during a wildfire?

Dennis Webb
Vail, CO Colorado
Kara K. Pearson/Post Independent file photoFire Ready emloyees Armando Martinez, left, and Alfredo Ocana work on pruning a spruce tree in West Glenwood in 2006 to keep branches that could ignite in a wildfire farther from the home.
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GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” It may seem counterintuitive. But the best course of action for some local residents might be to stay in their homes when a wildfire threatens.

That’s according to the consultants who prepared a Community Wildfire Protection Plan for the Glenwood Springs Fire Protection District.

Boulder-based Anchor Point Fire Management Group suggests the idea in the case of several Glenwood-area neighborhoods that have limited access and could easily be cut off by fires in drainages below homes. These include Glenwood Highlands, Oasis Creek, upper Canyon Creek, upper Mitchell Creek, Canyon Creek Estates, Three Mile, Black Diamond, Oak Meadows and north No Name.

“In addition to improved access/egress, consideration should be given to developing ‘shelter in place’ areas that are designed as alternatives to evacuation through hazardous areas,” the report says.

It says the concept is widely used for wildfire protection in Australia, “where fast-moving, short-duration fires in light fuels make evacuation impractical.”

“This concept is new to wildfire in the United States, but not to hazardous materials incident response where time, hazards, and sheer logistics often make evacuation impossible,” it says.

Glenwood Springs fire marshal Ron Biggers said he’s not aware of what also is called the “stay and survive” concept being promoted in the United States.

“It’s just something, it’s more of an educational tool I think for us in this country, so people don’t feel like they have to run out, which in a wildfire situation is probably a bad or worse thing to do,” he said.

Biggers sees staying in a home is a good last resort when people can’t evacuate or refuse to do so. Although the idea may sound dangerous, he said evacuations also can be dangerous, resulting in accidents and traffic jams during the middle of an emergency.

Most of the time, a structure will provide enough shelter in a wildfire, even if the roof catches fire, Biggers said. A flame front usually takes only a minute or two to pass, he said.

“It’s safer in the structure because your body wouldn’t withstand the intense heat (outside) for that short period of time,” he said.

Once the fire has passed, the home’s occupant can go outside, being careful where to walk over the recently burned landscape. Sometimes, people then can extinguish any small fires and even save a house from being destroyed, Biggers said.

He said staying in a home wouldn’t be advisable for people who are disabled or in poor health, and could have trouble coping with heat or smoke.

Anchor Point is careful to qualify its recommendations for the “shelter in place” approach.

“The success of this tactic depends on a detailed preplan that takes into account the construction type and materials of the building used, topography, depth and type of the fuel profile, as well as current and expected weather and fire behavior,” it says.

It says homes should be made of fire-resistant materials such as concrete or stucco walls and asphalt or metal roofs, and should be surrounded by defensible space ” possibly more than would be recommended for people not considering trying to stay in their homes during a fire.

The consultants recommend a home’s occupants take several precautions if they choose to stay in a home when a fire threatens. Some are closing doors and windows and shutting down air conditioning and other ventilation systems; filling tubs, sinks and buckets with water; removing lightweight or highly flammable window coverings and closing blinds and heavy drapes; moving furniture away from windows; and wearing clothes with fire-resistant natural fibers such as wool or cotton, and that cover as much of the body as possible.

While it’s one thing to talk about riding out a fire while in a home, Biggers said he thinks a lot of people will evacuate because of “the fear factor.”


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