DILLON — It doesn’t take much to start a wildfire.
Lightning striking a tree in the forest, or a stray ember from an unwatched campfire can quickly grow into an astonishingly destructive blaze, threatening everything in its path. And while the county’s fire departments are already gearing up for that possibility after a small fire broke out near Silverthorne last week, officials are also asking community members to do what they can to help mitigate the danger and prepare for the worst-case scenario.
“The season is on us at this point, whether you’re ready for it or not,” said Steve Lipsher, a spokesperson for Summit Fire & EMS. “We can’t predict where a fire is going to start or how far away from developed areas it will start. Those two variables alone make it imperative that residents are ready to go now.
“A fire could start this afternoon. It could start 200 yards away from your home. At that point, you don’t have the luxury of time to start putting things together to be prepared.”
And while the U.S. Forest Service and others seek out mitigation work in surrounding forests and wooded areas, there’s plenty that residents can do to help protect their own properties and families. Perhaps most vitally, community members should be conducting mitigation work and creating defensible spaces around their homes.
Homeowners should be sure to remove any potential hazards near their homes, including things like bushes and overhanging tree branches near the house, replacing combustible decorative features like mulch with rocks, and creating distance between vegetation in the yard to break up any continuous fuel sources.
Additionally, homeowners should try to use fire-wise plants and trees on their properties and take care to remove built-up pine needles and leaves in their yards and gutters that could carry flames. Owners also should take the time to make sure any other potential hazards are safely stored, keeping firewood away from the house, putting away any flammable furniture after use and more.
Property owners also should double check to make sure any vents leading inside their homes have proper screens to prevent stray embers from entering.
“That self-mitigation is an extremely important aspect to fire prevention,” said Chief Jim Keating of the Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District. “It’s the one thing a property owner can do to help themselves, us and the overall process. There are a lot of mitigation efforts underway, but those are in the forest. If we have any kind of fire in a residential area, the structures are our big concern. So whatever the property owner can do themselves is an absolutely huge asset to our work.”
Red, White & Blue and Summit Fire & EMS both offer free wildfire preparation and defensible space consultations, wherein a fire official will come to the residence and provide insights on how homeowners can better mitigate the potential for a fire on their property.
But as some of the county’s residents have experienced over recent years, sometimes fires do threaten residential areas, and community members should be prepared for the possibility that they’ll be asked to evacuate in a hurry.
Officials are encouraging residents to prepare evacuation kits in the event they are forced to leave their homes, including at least three days worth of food and water, medications, a change of clothes, toiletries, a first-aid kit, cellphone charger, emergency tools and batteries, extra cash or a credit card, and any special items for infants or anyone else in the household needing extra care. Pet owners also should make sure they have food, a pet carrier and anything else they might need.
Additionally, residents should keep copies of essential documents in their kits — bank account numbers, contracts, family records, insurance polices and more — and should include any important phone numbers for individuals they might need to contact after an evacuation.
Keating said planning ahead could go a long way, especially as officials work through the best way to shelter individuals in the event of an evacuation while maintaining social distancing.
“If a fire does occur in your area, you need to have a plan, and you need to know where you’re going,” Keating said. “Residents shouldn’t necessarily rely on public officials. Have your own plan, particularly this year where it would be more difficult if we do have an evacuation situation because of the COVID issue. If you’ve got friends somewhere in a neighboring area, talk to them and be sure you have your to-go kit.”
Finally, residents should make sure that they’re able to get the information they need in an emergency. Officials recommend that residents sign up for emergency alerts through Summit County Alert, and familiarize themselves with helpful online resources for distributing information like the county’s emergency blog and social media pages for local emergency services.
This year Red, White & Blue and Summit Fire also launched new Community Connect portals, which allow residents to share vital information that emergency workers can access in the event of an emergency, such as emergency contacts, pre-set gathering locations, special mobility needs, pets in the home and more.
Red, White & Blue is planning on hosting virtual “Are You Ready?” workshops where community members can learn more about how to protect themselves and their property.
“We’ve seen how quickly the fire danger can move from low to high in the matter of a day or two,” Keating said. “There’s still snow on the ground, and we had moisture from last weekend. But by the end of the week, that could turn around, and even a small fire in the wrong place could result in disaster.”
And simply by virtue of living in Summit County, officials say everyone has a duty to engage in best practices around wildfire season.
“I think being educated about the threat of wildfires is a critical part of being a conscientious resident in our community,” Lipsher said. “We count on our residents to be responsible about fires and sources of heat. It’s just part of living up here.”