How you can keep your home safe from wildfires, according to the experts

A crew executes a fuels reduction project above the Wellington neighborhood in Breckenridge. Cpt. Matt Benedict of the Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District recently met with other forestry officials to discuss the 2022 wildfire season and how homeowners can protect their property.
Ashley Garrison/Colorado State Forest Service

Wildfires in the state have already begun, and leadership from Red, White & Blue Fire District and the Colorado Forest Service met virtually Wednesday, April 13, to discuss how residents can protect their homes from damage. The webinar was hosted by the town of Blue River, but was open to the public.

Cpt. Matt Benedict, who is also a Blue River resident, said that in recent years, fires have gotten bigger, hotter and more complicated.

“There’s a myth out there you see every year in the press as well that it’s only the miracle homes that survived fires,” he said. “That’s just not how physics works. It’s not miracles. It’s very fuel-based. It’s very wind-based. It’s very, in a lot of ways, predictable.”

The first 5 feet around a home is called the “immediate zone,” Benedict said, and it is considered now to be the most critical in what can save a home. He said that when a home burns down, it’s most likely due to easily ignited materials within 5 feet of the home, which can include small branches or other natural materials.

Next, is the “intermediate zone,” which is 5 to 30 feet away from a house. According to research from the U.S. Forest Service, radiant heat from a wildfire will not ignite materials on homes at distances greater than 30 feet from the house, which also makes it an important zone to remove flammable vegetation from. This does not mean residents have to remove every single tree or shrub from 30 feet from the home, but making sure that there is little risk in this zone is important, Benedict said.

“This intermediate zone is where we want to significantly reduce (British thermal units) from incoming fires,” Benedict said. “So we’re going to separate trees, we’re going to give space (and) we’re going to manage the grasses, which are a huge component of all of this. We’re going to manage the shrubbery, the junipers, the brown covers, our wood piles, and we’re going to manage and reduce the threat of all those things.”

Outside of that is the “extended zone” — or 30 to 100 feet from the home. Though this area is outside of property lines for most households, there’s still an opportunity for residents to continue mitigation to protect their homes.

“This is where we encourage you to create that park-like feel,” Benedict said. “Separate the trees (and) clean out the dead. If you’re tripping over it or poking your eyes out as you’re walking around in this area, clean that stuff up and put it up for the chipper. Your yard will look awesome, and your fire threat will be minimal.”

Firefighters also do free risk evaluations for homeowners to assess what could possibly be done to protect a home. There’s no obligation, and Benedict added that this is a way for fire mitigators to have more in-depth dialogue with homeowners about what their risks are. Homeowners can then use the information to apply for a grant to help with wildfire mitigation.

Lee Theobald, a forester stationed in Frisco, said that the area around Blue River was designated as a high-priority strategic area in the Summit County Wildfire Protection Plan, and upcoming projects in Blue River aim to strengthen and build upon existing fuel breaks.

“It’s very important to have fuel breaks within such close range of houses adjacent to federal Forest Service land,” he said. “The treatment we’re going to be doing is going to be reducing the wildfire intensity next to Blue River, and the goal is to move potential wildfires that are occurring in the crown of the forest, and trying to move it to the ground and allowing safer conditions for firefighters.”

Across the county, various wildfire mitigation plans will continue over the course of wildfire season, including 10 from the Dillon Ranger District. The largest project in Blue River will mitigate 110 acres of land.

Crews will access the site and remove standing dead timber and mature lodgepole trees using chainsaws. Theobald said hopefully it will begin this year, but the completion date is set for October 2023. Local trailheads will remain open during this project.

When projects are finished, Bill Wolf with the Colorado State Forest Service said that groups work together to find solutions to remove matter that had been cut.

“We are currently thinking of creative solutions to try to get some of that material out,” Wolf said. “Whenever there’s the potential of getting material out, I always try to utilize the wood in ways that support local jobs. Currently, we’re trying to think of nontraditional products such as chips and mulch and sawdust for habitats.”

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