Summit officials urge residents to plan ahead to minimize wildfire risks
A fresh blanket of snow descended over Summit County early this week, and while most residents are focused on taking advantage of the fresh powder on the ski slopes or heading out in their snowshoes, others have already turned their attention to the wildfire season ahead.
As many communities continue to reckon with the impacts of Colorado’s historic wildfire season last year, Summit County officials are asking residents to plan ahead and help mitigate the risks of a major fire in the area.
“The entire effort is all about planning,” said Dan Schroder, Summit County’s CSU extension director. “… Snow continues to fall, but we also need to recall that we have not received the average expected precipitation over the last decade or more. … Even though the hillsides are white and the rivers are flowing, we don’t have as much water as we traditionally have. Drought leads to the fire season being longer, hotter and drier. … The melt is right around the corner. The future summer seems like it might be a long way away, but a few months really is very little time before … it isn’t winter anymore, and we’ve jumped into the potential for a wildfire at any time.”
The county offers a number of programs meant to help mitigate wildfire risks, including a grant program for hazardous fuels reduction projects. Through the program, the county offers reimbursements for 50% of mitigation costs to help groups pay for tree removal, vegetation management and the creation of defensible space in neighborhoods.
From 2009 to 2020, Schroder said the county reimbursed community groups to the tune of about $3 million for 181 projects, funded through a mill levy approved by local voters in 2008.
Grants are available for larger groups looking to do mitigation work, including towns, homeowners associations or neighborhoods getting together to make a plan. Mitigation plans are reviewed by the Summit County Wildfire Council, which makes recommendations on grant approvals to the Summit Board of County Commissioners.
“The grant program really does rely on a communitywide effort,” Schroder said. “So we typically don’t entertain individual properties. Research shows that one property creating defensible space doesn’t help the community when it comes to wildfire but multiple properties adjacent to one another who create defensible space have a higher probability of surviving a wildfire.”
The county also offers a Community Wildfire Protection Plan Implementation Grant program, which provides a 90% reimbursement to fund wildfire preparedness projects outside of defensible space initiatives. The program provides money to improve signage in neighborhoods so that fire crews coming from other areas of the state or country can find where they’re going in the event of a wildfire, road improvements to ensure evacuation egress routes are more efficient and the installation of emergency water systems to help fight fires.
“We are in the Wild West,” Schroder said. “There are sections of the county that never received a great deal of infrastructure, and some communities that don’t have fire hydrants or pressurized water sources.”
Preapplications for both grant programs are due March 26, and full applications are due April 30.
Summit County also will be rolling out the eighth annual chipping program this year. The program runs for about four months from the middle of June to October and provides a way for every homeowner to participate in mitigation efforts without having to coordinate with neighbors.
Every week, the chipping program will arrive in a different area of the county to provide free disposal of branches, logs and small trees. Last year, a total of 2,215 households participated in the program. More than 6,000 independent properties have participated since its inception, many more than once.
“It takes a drop of water to make a waterfall,” Schroder said. “In our grant programs, we want to see continuous neighborhoods, home by home, creating defensible space. The chipping program is filling in the gaps. This ends up being a communitywide defensible space creation that occurs over time. And when people do their independent work, it also becomes a positive by association. Neighbors see neighbors doing work, and they want to also contribute.”
Schroder said this year’s schedule will be the same as last year. For more information about Summit County’s wildfire mitigation programs, including the chipping schedule and grant applications, visit SummitCountyCo.gov/416/forest-health.
For those looking to go a step further with their homes, both Summit Fire & EMS and the Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District offer free wildfire preparation and defensible-space consultations for residents, homeowner groups and other organizations.
“I think what occurred late last season really drove home the importance of mitigating around homes,” said Jim Keating, chief of the Red, White & Blue. “It was certainly proven up in Grand County that where people had taken a little special effort around their homes to remove flammable furniture off the deck, firewood from under the deck and close proximity trees around the property, it paid off in many instances.
“As we move pretty quickly into the spring wildfire season, especially somewhat with a lack of snowfall, we’re encouraging people to look around and start making changes to make their homes fire safe.”
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