Officials urge Summit County residents to take steps to prepare for wildfire season
“Be prepared” isn’t just a platitude. For those living in Summit County’s wildland-urban interface, it has to become a way of life. That message was drilled home at February’s meeting of the Forest Health Task Force.
Dan Schroeder of the county’s Colorado State University Extension office opened with a presentation on how residents can help first responders with preparation if and when a disaster strikes.
Schroeder emphasized that locals should note the reality of where they live. For one thing, the county and most of the West is running at a decade-long drought, which is turning the forests more and more arid. Schroeder emphasized the difference between weather and climate, and how the current healthy snowpack won’t make up for years of deficits.
“We haven’t received the average amount of precipitation in January for 15 years,” Schroeder said. “That turns it from a weather story to a climate story. We are drying out. The West is drying out.”
The mountain pine beetle epidemic has also killed at least half of the trees in Summit, significantly raising fire danger. But Schroeder said it’s partly a good thing they have, as it is nature’s way of naturally cleaning out dead trees and detritus on the forest floor as well as creating the “disturbance” needed for new growth.
Schroeder asked the public to encourage practical forest management from humans as well, including cutting and thinning, to make Summit a safer place. That goes hand-in-hand with people taking measures themselves by doing fire mitigation work on their own land.
On that point — the human factor involved in wildfire preparedness — Schroeder wants residents to take some of the responsibility themselves. Aside from mitigation work, a community’s best friend is planning in advance of an emergency.
Whether it’s pre-emptively registering pets and addresses with Summit County Animal Control to ensure their rescue in the event of a rapid evacuation, mapping out evacuation routes or creating five-minute “bug-out bags” with essentials, every act of preparation helps.
Schroeder also wanted residents to go a step further with self and environmental awareness and ask themselves practical questions for the worst “What if?” scenarios. Does your house have visible and contrasting address number signage that makes it easy to identify? Do you have a communication and evacuation in place for your own family and a pre-set meeting place?
And as grim as it is to think about, if the worst-case scenario arises and you lose your home and all of your possessions, do you know how you’ll survive? Are you mentally and emotionally prepared for an entirely different life? Will you have anywhere else to go, any family elsewhere who would be able to help?
This question was one many residents of Paradise, California, did not have an answer to before a deadly wildfire leveled the town and killed over 80 residents.
“There are people still living there in the Walmart parking lot with nowhere else to go,” Schroeder said. “When it comes to homelessness, one of the overriding factors is bad luck. One thing can go wrong, and that can have cascading effects for the rest of your life.”
Schroeder’s presentation ended with a clear message to residents: In the mountains, it is your responsibility to be prepared.
“Don’t wait for that responsibility,” Schroeder said. “Let first responders do their job, and expect a big event every year.”
Summit Fire & EMS Chief Jeff Berino then gave his own presentation explaining how the Smokey the Bear fire danger sign works and how fire danger is evaluated. He made a callback to Schroeder’s theme about not getting comfortable with current conditions when predicting future problems.
“The good news: fire danger is very low today,” Berino quipped. “Enjoy it, because it’s not going to last.”
To help dispel complacency, Berino showed a slideshow of significant Summit County wildfires in the past, emphasizing how most of them occurred when fire danger was merely “moderate.”
Berino explained that these fire danger levels change according a wide variety of factors, such as how many points of ignition are in the environment, how fast a fire can spread in current conditions, fuel moisture, energy release, winds, topography and other measurable factors that determine how “angry” a fire will be and how hard it will be to fight.
But as much as that data helps, wildfires do not operate like many other natural disasters because of how unpredictable they are when it comes to location, timing and direction. You can have the best guess that turns out to be totally wrong because of circumstances completely out of your control.
Preparation might not always work, but lowering the risk of personal disaster can mean everything when there are only minutes to spare.
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