Summit County officials discuss wildfire management practices in town hall |

Summit County officials discuss wildfire management practices in town hall

Experts from local fire districts, the U.S. Forest Service, Summit County and more give insight about response plans and mitigation efforts

Summit Fire & EMS Chief Travis Davis, from left, Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons and Undersheriff Peter Haynes respond to a wildfire burning on the northern end of Summit County on Oct. 7, 2020.
Photo from Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons

On Wednesday, May 26, Summit County hosted a virtual town hall that focused on wildfire management practices.

“We know that wildfire is top of mind,” Summit County Commissioner Elisabeth Lawrence said. “It certainly is for us at the county, and I assure you it is for all of our local agencies, as well. Just in terms of the historic drought we’re dealing with, the super dry soil, it’s more than just a drought at this point. It’s only springtime, and we’re in drought conditions already.”

During the town hall, experts from the U.S. Forest Service, local fire districts, Summit County and other agencies gave insights about what their departments are doing to mitigate the risk of wildfires in the area.

The town hall was part of a series that is focusing on wildfire mitigation. For more information, visit Summit County’s Facebook page.

How does Summit County deal with wildfire?

Dan Schroder, county director with the Colorado State University Extension, took a few moments to present how the county goes about addressing wildfire concerns.

“We are in a fire-prone ecosystem,” Schroder said. “That means we should expect fire to come back on the landscape frequently.”

Schroder proceeded to present a brief overview of the county’s various master plans including the Community Wildfire Protection Plan, the Comprehensive Plan & Basin Master Plans, the Multi-Hazard Mitigation Plan and the Open Space Protection Plan, all of which can be found on the county’s website.

U.S. Forest Service Dillon District Ranger Adam Bianchi said a large part of what the Forest Service focuses on is promoting healthy forests.

“Right now, our focus this upcoming year are some areas by Blue River, kind of the White Cloud area (and) focusing in Breckenridge in the south side of the county.”

Bianchi said about 80% of Summit County’s land is federally owned and that it’s important the organization helps to provide resilient forests and prevent future wildfires.

What does a wildfire response look like?

Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons discussed how a response to a wildfire typically works: As laid out by state statutory law, it’s a fire chief’s responsibility to mitigate the fire first and then loop in the sheriff if it becomes too much to handle.

“The law talks about that once fire chiefs either can’t control the fire or extinguish it or it escapes their capabilities, they have the ability to reach out to the sheriff, who by law is the statutory fire warden of the county,” FitzSimons said. “Then by statute, they can transfer the fire to me with my agreement, and then I take control by state law of not only suppression efforts of the wildfire but then incur the financial responsibility for the county of suppression of that fire.”

Under that law, FitzSimons said he’s instructed to build an incident management team and appoint people to that team to manage the fire. In addition, his department has an operating plan, which is to “ensure a prompt response to wildfires in Summit County.”

FitzSimons said the county also participates in the Colorado Emergency Fire Fund, which is an agreement between Summit County, the sheriff and the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control to establish the methodology and payments for how the county contributes to the fund.

FitzSimons said Summit County is one of 64 counties that pays into this fund to help pay for wildfires.

Jim Keating, fire chief of the Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District in Breckenridge, said the initial response to a wildfire is a critical component. He said the goal is to enact some sort of containment, which could vary based on factors like location, weather conditions, the time of day, what resources are available, terrain and vegetation.

What if there’s an evacuation?

“Whenever there’s a wildfire … that would require an evacuation, the first thing we’re going to do is activate our emergency operations center, and that’s the one location that is going to coordinate all of the participating entities,” said Brian Bovaird, director of emergency management for Summit County.

Bovaird said his team would use a system that qualifies the seriousness of the order, whether that be a pre-evacuation or mandatory evacuation.

His team would use “multiple ways of notifying the public,” which could include fire and police partners going door to door.

Bovaird said all first responders carry a map book that parcels out neighborhoods and areas in the county. In that book, it quantifies how many people are in that particular area and how long it would take to clear it. Bovaird said these are updated frequently, with the most recent update being last year.

Bovaird said his department strives to check and make sure all community members are accounted for through various channels.

For more information about the county’s response to wildfires, visit the county’s website.

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