Vail Valley Voices: Prepare for a wildfire
Vail, CO Colorado
For the last five years, I’ve worked as the wildfire mitigation manager for Eagle County Community Development. In that time I’ve looked at hundreds of homes in order to assess their vulnerability to fire and to help their owners develop mitigation strategies.
As I watch the daily images of devastation in Fourmile Canyon in Boulder, I’m taken aback by the cruel irony that some firefighters and their families are now facing. While these brave and selfless individuals worked late into the night protecting the homes of others, the fire left them no home to return to. Fire pays no attention to property lines or jurisdictional boundaries. It consumes wild and residential areas without a thought for who lives there or what value we place on the land. A fire wants only one thing: to survive.
In order for a fire to survive, it needs fuel. All too often those of us that live along the boundary between residential and wild lands forget that our home is just that – fuel. The assumption is “it will never happen to me” or that someone will be here to save your house. As Chief Jon Asper of Greater Eagle Fire said in a recent newspaper article “it’s not a matter of if, but when.” We’re lucky in Eagle County to have a dedicated group of professional and volunteer firefighters, as well as law enforcement personnel, that prepare and train for the inevitable return of wildfire to the lands in their jurisdiction – but they can” take on the challenge alone.
I’m reminded of a story that a Forest Service official told me about a fire he was battling in Alaska many years ago. During the chaotic evacuation of a neighborhood that the fire was bearing down on, a panic-stricken homeowner stopped to ask the incident commander why no one was protecting his home. The fire boss simply replied “you made that decision for us a long time before we got here.”
When you live in a wildfire area and don’t take the necessary steps to mitigate potential wildfire hazards, you are tying the hands of emergency responders in regard to their ability to protect your home. If you don’t make your property defendable, then it won’t be defended. When you develop a neighborhood with one way in and one way out, you put emergency responders and residents alike in a potentially deadly scenario. If you put aesthetics ahead of public safety in the form of neighborhood design requirements that prohibit the removal of flammable vegetation, or require wood roofing and excessive landscaping, you endanger the lives of those living there and those sworn to protect them. The responsibility to prevent and mitigate the threat of wildfire does not rest solely on the hands of emergency responders and land managers. Those living in the wildland interface have an equal stake in preparing for the inevitable return of fire. Without your help, the potential for catastrophic loss of life and property is a harsh reality.
There are many people that can help you to prepare. Contact the prevention staff at your local fire department or at Eagle County Wildfire Mitigation for an assessment of your home or property. Visit the FireWise.org website for mitigation strategies and checklists to prepare your home for wildfire season. Think about replacing combustible elements of your house with more fire resistant materials. Remove flammable vegetation, dead trees and other debris from around your home to give it defensible space. Talk to your neighbors about what your neighborhood or homeowners association can do to develop evacuation plans and fuel breaks. Don’t wait until the fire arrives to do the work. At that point, it’s too late.
Eric Lovgren is wildfire mitigation manager for Eagle County.