Cover Story / Culture

COVER: Mountain residents must learn to mitigate, prepare for fire

timerlinefire2By Jeffrey V. Smith
Every year thousands of wildfires—including more than 2,500 in Colorado— burn millions of acres in the country. It’s not if, but when the next wildfire will threaten one of our communities. The state’s high temperatures and low humidity in the summer create extreme conditions that fuel wildfires. While most fires are small and quickly extinguished, catastrophic fires can occur at any time. It’s up to everyone who lives or plays in our Front Range forests to learn their role in fire prevention and know the best ways to make all of our neighborhoods safer from wildfire.

Thankfully, for the thousands of people who live in rural mountain communities where services are limited, local fire districts—and their hundreds of volunteer and professional firefighters—work together to protect mountain homes and forests in Clear Creek, Gilpin, Jefferson, Boulder and Larimer counties. These dedicated men and women have chosen to bravely serve their communities as firefighters, most without pay, and provide fire protection and emergency services around the clock.

Even though someone is paying attention, it’s still up to everyone to educate themselves in fire mitigation techniques and other proactive practices as well as emergency planning. Several community-based workshops are planned in May to teach people how to be fire wise and prepared.

National Wildfire Community Preparedness Day, May 2, encourages people to commit a few hours to join others throughout the nation in making communities a safer place to live by raising wildfire awareness and helping protect homes, neighborhoods and entire communities while increasing safety for wildland firefighters.

Gilpin County holds a Preparedness Challenge, May 2, with prizes and a workshop on defensible space, home ignition, fire fighting from a firefighter’s perspective, the mitigation grant process, and a discussion of the film “Unacceptable Risk; Firefighters on the Front Lines of Climate Change.” Also on May 2, Boulder County Fire Management staff present a free slash pile workshop at the Nederland Community Forestry Sort Yard.

An Emergency Readiness Presentation, May 5, takes place at the Estes Valley Library and the Nederland Community Library hosts an Emergency Preparedness Seminar, May 25. Nederland, in partnership with Boulder County, also hosts its annual Firewise Clean-Up Event, June 6.

Wildland fire is always one of the biggest worries in mountain fire districts, according to former Fire Chief Chris Schimanskey of Timberline Fire Protection District, because “anything we have has the potential to be a large wildland situation,” he said. “It’s our primary concern.”

“As evidenced by some of the larger fires in Colorado there is the chance for a fire to get out of hand quickly,” Lieutenant Adam Jack of the Coal Creek Canyon Fire Protection District explained. “Being aware of conditions, and being prepared for evacuation, is a sensible precaution.”

Schimanskey says homeowners can do their part by mitigating property and attending a class. He explained there are some “basic rules” like don’t have trees and shrubs next to the house. Remove ladder and ground fuels and make sure the fire department can get in your driveway.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, “cleaning your property of debris and maintaining your landscaping are important first steps to helping minimize damage and loss.” Among other detailed suggestions, homeowners should clear leaves and debris from gutters, eaves, porches and decks; remove dead vegetation from under decks and within 10 feet of a house; remove anything stored underneath decks or porches; remove flammable materials—like firewood and propane—from within 30 feet of a home’s foundation; and prune trees so the lowest branches are 6 to 10 feet from the ground.

“One of the best things people can do is put the reflective number signs on their house,” Schimanskey said. “Our maps are very good at getting us to the roads and general areas, but they don’t locate individual residences. Some times you’re taking a guess, and when you go to the wrong place it slows us up quite a bit. And, some things are pretty vital.” He would like county commissioners to pass an ordinance saying people have to do it. “They truly are lifesavers, and it’s just $15 for really cheap ‘insurance,’” he added.

Other advice from Schimanskey includes making sure phones are included in your county’s reverse 911 system. Residents must register, but cell phones can be included. “If you’re down below, you would want to know,” he said. One of his “big concerns” is latch key children in mountain homes when school’s out. Schimanskey suggests families make a plan. “A lot of people don’t know the secondary roads out of their subdivisions or haven’t discussed with there family that if they get separated, where they’ll meet.” He says people need to think about what they would grab right away and have a plan of what you’re going to do. Don’t forget to include animals and pets.

All residents should have some basic supplies on hand in order to survive for at least three days following an emergency. An emergency preparedness kit should be customized to meet the needs of the individual and the family. Be sure to think about your particular needs after addressing the basics of survival: fresh water, clean air and warmth. Estes Valley Fire Protection District recommends preparing a disaster kit that, among other items, contains drinking water, change of clothes for each family member, blanket or sleeping bag for each person, first aid kit including prescription medications, emergency tools, including radio and flashlight, extra set of car keys and credit cards or cash.

Jack reminds everyone that as many as 90 percent of fires are caused by people. “As such, make sure you know the current fire dangers, keep diligent, and act accordingly to prevent them,” he said. “Further, take a lesson from ‘see something, say something,’ if you see smoke or other problems, call it in by dialing 911.”

One of the biggest things a person can do to assist with fire management in the mountains is to join their local department. Schimanskey, who has been a volunteer for more than 19 years, explains that since we don’t have the things the big cities do as far as tax resources for essential services. “It’s my belief that everybody, for the privilege of living in our community, should try to do something to help it. This is what I picked, and I love it.” He says the volunteers that last are dedicated, have a high self esteem and are hard workers. “It’s a very satisfying thing to help somebody who is in need. It’s kind of exciting and there is a sense of belonging to something.”

Despite the demands on an individual’s time—and even occasional sleepless nights—Jack says the rewards are many. “It feels good to be in a position to help a neighbor, the opportunities for learning are exceptional, and there is also a great camaraderie amongst firefighters. Learning about the surrounding environment, and exploring it’s boundaries, is an added bonus,” he said.

Anyone interested in volunteering, should visit their local department’s website for information and applications or visit their local fire house to learn more.

Local Fire Districts in mountain communities in Clear Creek, Gilpin, Boulder and Larimer counties.

Allenspark Fire Department
Location: Allenspark and surrounding areas
Size: 155 sq. miles/27 volunteers/1 station
Black Hawk Fire Department
Location: Black HAwk and surrounding areas
Size: 22 career firefighters/1 station
Central City Fire Department
Location: Central City and surrounding areas
Size: 35 sq. miles/volunteers/2 stations
Clear Creek Fire Authority
Location: Clear Creek County towns and rural areas
Size: 335 sq. miles/50 volunteers/9 stations
Coal Creek Canyon Fire District
Location: Coal Creek Canyon
Size: 52 sq. miles/40+ volunteers/4 stations
Estes Valley Fire Protection District
Location: Estes Park and surrounding areas
Size: 66.3 sq. miles/45+ volunteers/2 stations
Four Mile Fire Department
Location: Four Mile Canyon south of Gold Hill
Size: 13 sq. miles/volunteers/1 station
Glen Haven Area VFD
Location: Glen Haven area/Estes Valley
Size: 36 sq. miles/20+ volunteers/2 stations
Golden Gate FPD
Location: Golden Gate Canyon area
Size: 50 sq. miles/18+ volunteers/2 stations
Gold Hill Fire Protection District
Location: Gold Hill and surrounding areas
Size: 23+ volunteers/1 station
Indian Peaks Fire Protection District
Location: Ward area
Size: volunteers/2 stations
Left Hand Fire Protection District
Location: Lefthand Canyon area
Size: 52 sq. miles/30+ volunteers/4 stations
Lyons Fire Protection District
Location: Lyons and surrounding areas
Size: 76 sq. miles/34+ volunteers/2 stations
Nederland Fire Protection District
Location: Nederland and surrounding areas
Size: 56 sq. miles/12+ volunteers/3 stations
Pinewood Springs  FPD
Location: Pinewood Springs area west of Lyons
Size: volunteers/1 station
Sugarloaf Fire Protection District
Location: Western Boulder County/North of Nederland
Size: 17 sq. miles/35+ volunteers/3 stations
Sunshine Fire Protection District
Location: Western Boulder County/East of Gold Hill
Size: 20+ volunteers/2 stations
Timberline Fire Protection District
Location: Gilpin and Western Boulder counties
Size: 173 sq. miles/40+ volunteers/9 stations
Volunteer Fire Dept. of Big Elk
Location: Big Elk Meadows area near Lyons
Size: 20 sq. miles/volunteers/1 station

Originally published in the May 2015 issue of the MMAC Monthly

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