In 2017, the Peak 2 Fire ignited near Breckenridge and forced the evacuation of hundreds of homes in the Peak 7 neighborhood and the surrounding area. A year later, the Buffalo Mountain Fire burned its way through more than 90 acres to the edge of the Mesa Cortina and Wildnernest neighborhoods near Silverthorne, spurring another evacuation of more than 1,300 homes.
For residents in Summit County, and all living along the wildland-urban interface, it is only a matter of time until the next wildfire turns from its ignition point in the forest toward our communities, threatening human lives, property and the infrastructure that we rely on. With the inevitability of Colorado’s greatest natural disasters ever looming, the question is: Are you ready?
The Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District held a virtual wildfire preparedness work session Monday, May 24, pushing out comprehensive information on steps Summit County residents can take to ensure they’ve done everything they can to defend their homes from a fire and make sure they’re ready to escape with the necessary items in the event of an evacuation.
“Sometimes, people can hear these same messages over and over again from us because we keep saying them,” said Schelly Olson, assistant chief with the Grand Fire Protection District. “But sometimes, when it comes from someone who now has gone through it and has some lessons learned, they think, ‘It happened to her, and it can happen to me.’ … If we can get people to take action on the ground, based on the things that have happened, that’s where I’ll feel good about having to go through this.”
Olson was one of hundreds of Grand County residents who lost their homes in the East Troublesome Fire last year, and she provided insights into lessons she personally learned with regard to home protection, evacuation readiness and communication.
After 60 days working on the Williams Fork Fire, Olson took a well-earned vacation out of town. The East Troublesome Fire was already burning at the time, but Olson said a relatively small blaze on the west side of the county impacting homes in Grand Lake or stretching into Rocky Mountain National Park was unfathomable. The unfathomable happened.
The East Troublesome Fire exploded from 18,550 acres to more than 187,000 acres between Oct. 21 and 22, and an evacuation order was issued for more than 35,000 individuals in the area.
Olson’s husband was at home at the time, but she said he missed the pre-evacuation notice because he wasn’t signed up for emergency alerts. She called him and told him to go outside and take the flammable cushions off their deck, a task he was still completing when the mandatory evacuation order was issued minutes later. He was forced to evacuate immediately, leaving behind their box full of important documents and family keepsakes, which were lost in the fire.
The blaze would ultimately claim two lives, 366 homes and more than 200 other structures before it was eventually contained. The East Troublesome Fire is an extreme example of the destructive capabilities of wildfires, and even the most Firewise neighborhoods could have burned in the face of Colorado’s second largest wildfire on record. Officials said community members should take note of the danger and take to heart whatever lessons can be learned, but they shouldn’t be discouraged into thinking they can’t make a difference.
“For members of the public and our community here, we don’t want to try and send this dooming message — that with the increase in extreme fire behavior we’ve been seeing over the last couple years — that the stuff you’re doing around your home is not going to make a difference,” Red, White & Blue firefighter Mitchell Hanson said. “That’s absolutely not the case. Any kind of mitigation work done can make a huge difference.”
Creating defensible space
One of the most important things homeowners in the county can do to prepare is ensure there is sufficient defensible space around their property.
Hanson said property owners should clear the immediate zone in front of their homes — the first 5 feet — from any flammable material, including mulch, plants, firewood piles and more. Residents should also clear roofs and gutters of dead leaves, pine needles and other debris. It’s also a good idea to replace missing shingles or roof tiles and to make sure vents have screens small enough to prevent embers from starting a fire inside the house.
Caroline Wockner — a firefighter with the Red, White & Blue — said the most prominent fuel type in Summit County is lodgepole pine, which can create a considerable amount of embers if windy.
“The fire can be quite a ways away, but these embers can travel part of a mile or as much as a mile away depending on wind,” Wockner said. “They’ll start smaller fires wherever they land. A good way to think about this is anywhere leaf litter or pine needles collect at your house, that’s the same place these embers will fall.”
In the intermediate zone around the property — 5 to 30 feet away from the home — homeowners should clear vegetation from under large propane tanks, keep lawns mowed short and remove ladder fuels that could allow a surface fire to reach the canopy, such as branches up to 6 feet off the ground. Trees should also be spaced out with at least 18 feet between crowns and 10 feet between any structures — or even farther if they’re on a slope — and shrubs should be limited to small clusters.
In the extended zone — greater than 30 feet from the house — residents should remove litter and debris on the ground, dead plants and trees, and vegetation near storage sheds or other outbuildings.
When clearing space, community members can take advantage of the county’s chipping program, and should reach out to the Summit County Wildfire Council to learn more about hazardous fuels reduction and Community Wildfire Protection Plan Implementation grant programs in the future. Both the Red, White & Blue and Summit Fire & EMS also offer free defensible space audits by request.
Not only will making changes around the home ignition zone provide firefighters with the space they need to make a stand, but when resources are stretched thin and firefighters can’t get to each home, the changes will help protect the homes on their own.
“The goal … is to teach you all as homeowners and members of the community to do as many things as you can ahead of time in case there isn’t time for resources to protect each home,” Wockner. “The goal is to prep these structures so they can defend themselves against the fire.”
Fleeing at a moment’s notice
If a wildfire does ignite near a neighborhood, residents may have to evacuate in a hurry. To that end, community members should all have a personalized emergency kit filled will essentials that will last at least 72 hours, including water, nonperishable food, sanitation supplies, clothes, a flashlight, extra batteries, medications and prescriptions, phone chargers, and other personal items like eye glasses.
Amanda Seidler — public information officer with Red, White & Blue — said residents should also pack important documents, a hard copy of vital contact information, extra cash and a credit card, and quarters for laundry. Additionally, it’s a good idea to pack reminders in your bag, such as prompts to change your voicemail to let loved ones know you’re safe. Community members should also consider packing some luxury items like a book or deck of cards.
Olson said one of her biggest regrets from the East Troublesome Fire was losing her kids’ childhood art and projects, and she recommended taking some time to scan sentimental items into digital form so they can be recovered from the cloud after a fire.
“Our goal is that you make a kit that works for you,” Seidler said. “For me, I’ve found that you want to focus on the six P’s: people, papers, prescriptions, pictures, personal computer, plastic money.”
Residents should also pack emergency kits for their pets, complete with extra food and water, vaccination records and a recent selfie of themselves with the animal. Officials recommended creating a plan with neighbors so that if a resident isn’t around during the evacuation, there is someone else available to take the pet or the kit.
Those with special needs should make sure their evacuation plans account for accessibility items they might require, such as a patch kit for a wheelchair or a spare walker in the car.
Community members, especially those with special needs and pets, should also consider signing up with the Community Connect portal for their fire protection district, which will provide first responders with information they need to help individuals and animals evacuate.
During wildfire season, residents should also always keep at least a half tank of gas in their cars to avoid pump lines.
While putting together an emergency kit, Seidler said residents should reach out to their insurance providers to make sure they have sufficient home, rental or car insurance coverage. Community members should also go throughout their home and inventory all of their belongings, including taking down the serial numbers on more expensive items like skis, bikes and appliances.
Olson, who’s been through the recovery process, said having the right insurance can make a massive difference.
“Your insurance company is either your best friend or your worst enemy,” Olson said. “I heard absolute horror stories of folks who are trying to navigate through the insurance process.”
Finally, in the event of any emergency, community members will need to know how to get updates on the situation.
To keep up on the latest developments, officials recommended all community members sign up for Summit County Alert, in addition to liking the Facebook pages for the fire districts, Summit County Sheriff’s Office, local police, town and county governments, Summit Daily News, local radio stations, Inciweb, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and anywhere else that might have information on the wildfire.
In the event of a pre-evacuation or evacuation order, residents should also turn on traffic alerts at CoTrip.org to avoid traffic jams.
“I can speak to the necessity to take those pre-evacuation alerts seriously,” Hanson said. “In this day and age, having technology at the tip of your fingers, it’s very easy for us to stay up to date on emergencies such as wildfires, and we have a list of different avenues to stay updated. But nonetheless, take those pre-evacuation orders seriously and have that plan in place.”
For those interested in learning more about wildfire preparedness, Red, White & Blue will host another Zoom event June 10. Residents can RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org. Summit County is also hosting a wildfire town hall at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 26, via Zoom and Facebook Live. Visit the Summit County Government Facebook page for more details.