Van Beek: We are a wild bunch, and so is fire |

Van Beek: We are a wild bunch, and so is fire

May is wildfire preparedness month in Colorado. We had record snow and the melt will certainly lead to some flooding issues, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that we will skip over wildfire season. We have dead trees and dry brush under the snow, and once the white stuff melts off, that brush is prime to sparks.

Spring is a time of renewal and it also signifies the beginning of wildfire season, which is a renewal of life for some and deadly for others.

National Geographic states: “Wildfires are essential to the continued survival of some plant species. Some tree cones need to be heated before they open and release their seeds to germinate. The leaves of these plants include a flammable resin that feeds fire, helping the plants to propagate. Plants such as these depend on wildfires to sustain their regular life cycle.

Wildfires also help keep ecosystems healthy. They kill insects and diseases that harm trees. By clearing underbrush, fires make way for new grasses, herbs and shrubs, which provide food and habitat for animals and birds. At low intensity, flames can clean up debris and underbrush on the forest floor, add nutrients to the soil, and open up space, to let sunlight reach the ground, which nourishes smaller plants and gives larger trees room to grow. The historic practice of putting out all fires has caused an unnatural buildup of shrubs and debris, which can fuel even larger and more intense blazes.” 

In addition, Eagle County has suffered beetle infestations, which have killed our trees, making them tall, dry fire-starters. 

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So, we must balance the benefits of letting some fires burn and protecting others from spreading to communities where the risk of loss can be deadly. While there is much we can do, some fires will take a natural course, be resistant to even the most sophisticated firefighting techniques, and will only extinguish themselves after severe destruction. 

It’s still early in the season, and we may yet get another snowstorm, so it might seem premature to discuss the stages of our fire warning system. Yet, it is precisely now, outside the heat of the moment (so to speak), that we can reflect on past fire events and prepare ourselves for its potential destruction in the future. 

The three-stage warning system is designed to save lives. They include common-sense strategies but also things that we may have forgotten. 

Stage 1: Prohibiting campfires, wood-burning stoves, charcoal grills, and other open flames, including smoking, except in enclosed buildings and vehicles, and any type of explosive material, including fireworks or other pyrotechnic device. Exceptions include permanent fire pits with grates, in developed recreational areas, and lanterns using gas or jellied petroleum or pressurized liquid fuel. 

There are also restrictions on using equipment that generates a spark. Welding and other open torch tools may be exempt with permits that include restricted use, like having a chemical pressurized fire extinguisher nearby, at least one 35-incgh shovel, and a 10-foot clearing, away from combustible material, including grasses and dry brush. 

Stage 2: All of the restrictions of Stage 1 plus … no fires, even in developed campgrounds and picnic areas, any internal combustion engine (e.g., chainsaw, generator, ATV) without a spark arresting device, and any fuses or blasting caps, rockets, exploding targets, tracer rounds (remember the Lake Christine Fire), and other spark-generating or incendiary objects, and agricultural burns (except by permit). Also prohibited is the use of off-road motor vehicles, except in areas devoid of vegetation within 10 feet of the roadway, and in developed campgrounds and trailheads. Exhaust sparks can trigger a blaze.

Stage 3: Closure, except to authorized personnel, to eliminate the potential for human-caused fire hazards. 

Wildfire safety is not limited to forests … our homes need protection, too.

Home Safety: Fireproofing your home may slow down the progress of a fire, allowing time for firefighters to arrive. Of course, there are now new materials in homebuilding that inhibit fires but most of us live in existing structures that may not include these precautions. 

Outdoors: Create a fireproof barrier around your home, of up to 100 feet. The use of gravel and concrete on driveways and patios helps create a break. Flame-resistant plants can also slow down approaching flames; ones low in resin with high moisture content are best. Notice areas that are uphill toward your home. Regularly clear out undergrowth, and check for flammable items in storage sheds and garages. 

If you have a gated entrance and there is a Stage-2 warning in effect, leave the gate unlocked to allow easier access for emergency vehicles. 

Roofs and siding are best if made of tile, metal, concrete, stone, brick, or stucco. If you have a wood roof, be sure to paint the shingles with a fire-resistant treatment. Install double-paned windows with metal, rather than wood frames. Clean out debris from gutters, which can ignite from nearby sparks. Trim tree limbs around power lines. When constructing an outdoor deck, instead of wood, consider concrete, brick, or stone, for fire resistance. 

Indoors:  Keep candles away from curtains; even a slight breeze can spark a fire. Don’t drape anything over light bulbs; their heat can ignite. 

In the mountains, it still gets chilly at night; never run space heaters unattended. Dryer lint is a leading cause of home fires; clean it out monthly.  Do not overload plugs — check the voltage of extension cords and never run them under rugs. Don’t use appliances that emit an unusual odor. Check the integrity of electrical cords; it’s cheaper to replace them than to tape a crack that can overheat and start a fire. Install fire alarms and check batteries regularly. Keep a fire extinguisher nearby, you may need several to adequately cover your home.  A rescue ladder upstairs can be a lifesaver. 

Consider signing up for a RealFire home assessment. These voluntary assessments are performed by trained fire professionals and may qualify you for a cost-share assistance grant that will cover a portion of your mitigation work.  Go to or email to learn more.

This year, let’s break the record for the fewest wildfires in history! Stay safe.

James van Beek is the Eagle County Sheriff. You can reach him at

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