Clusters of dead lodgepole pines rise on a nearby mountainside like gray, skeletal fingers.
The slope of decaying conifers, ripe fuel for wildfires, closes in on the community of Pebble Creek from the north. But before it reaches the rural neighborhood, a cleared-out strip of land, lush with low, waving grasses, and dotted with yellow and purple wildflowers, protects the neighborhoods like a moat.
This barrier did not occur naturally, but through years of work and investment by scores of homeowners. And it’s only one of the many projects they’ve undertaken to get their neighborhood labeled a “Firewise Community” by the National Fire Protection Association. So far they’re the only community to do so in the Lake Dillon Fire District, the largest fire district in Summit County.
“Because of the work we’ve done over the past decade we received the Firewise designation last December,” said Lisa Kendall, resident and vice president of the neighborhood homeowners association. “We’ve been very proactive. We’re all in this together, and understand that we all have to do our part to protect out community.”
Located about 5 miles north of Silverthorne, Pebble Creek is accessible only by one long, narrow dirt and gravel road traversing steep grades. It’s an area where cell service is spotty at best. If residents didn’t take steps to protect their homes from the threat of wildfire, the tranquil neighborhood could be a lost cause if a raging wall of flame blew through the area. In total, Pebble Creek residents have spent approximately $300,000 over the past decade on fire protection.
Residents’ investments in safety and prevention don’t only help protect homeowners and their property, but also the firefighters who put their lives on the line when wildfires ignite. Pebble Creek residents developed a dry hydrant, as well as safety zones and fire breaks, to help firefighters if a fire strikes.
“It gives us a chance,” said Steve Lipsher, public information officer with the fire district. “We tend to have a better chance to protect a home if the homeowner has done their part. It’s best to have nothing but low grasses and maybe some landscaping shrubs within the first 10 feet from the home. Within the first 30 feet there can be some scattered trees.”
Maintaining the safety of the neighborhood is a never-ending task. On Thursday morning, as several teams of firefighters from all three departments in the county conducted a wildfire training exercise in the area, Kendall’s husband and stepson were still busy thinning out trees in dense woods surrounding Pebble Creek.
The destruction of about 75 percent of susceptible lodgepole pines by the pine bark beetle over the last five or six years created towering stands of kindling, including in the area surrounding Pebble Creek. They pose great danger if a lightning strike or poorly built campfire sparks a wildfire.
In the training scenario, a fire starts on the back deck of a home. It quickly spread to the woods and grasses and, in the scenario, threatens additional structures. The firefighters split into several teams, each with specific assignments to help battle the virtual wildfire. In the scenario it’s mid-September and most of the lower foliage has faded from green to brown and provides ample food for a wilderness fire.
“We want the guys to try new things during these exercises to see what works and what doesn’t,” Lipsher said. “It’s important to go through these training exercises before something actually happens. We’re conducting these in several areas to get our firefighters familiar with several areas and what hazards they would face.”
The idea of thinning and clearing forests surrounding homes has been controversial in some communities. Homeowners worry about aesthetics and aren’t always open to the idea of cutting down healthy trees in the name of safety. But the alternative could be much worse.
“We’d like to see every community in the county earn the Firewise designation,” Lipsher said. “It doesn’t guarantee that wildfire can’t threaten the neighborhood, but it does give our firefighters a much better chance.”