Experts discuss how to keep Summit County safe from wildfires
Since 1970, Colorado’s population has more than doubled from 2.2 million to 5.6 million. By 2050, Colorado’s population is expected to grow by another 3 million, with the majority expected to move as close to nature as possible in so-called wildland-urban interfaces, also known as WUIs. That puts a whole lot of people living near all the hazards Mother Nature has to offer, such as wildfires.
To protect current and future residents, rural communities like Summit County have taken it upon themselves to develop land use planning codes and regulations that reduce wildfire risk in WUIs. At the annual Colorado Counties, Incorporated conference in Keystone this past weekend, a panel of experts in land use planning for wildfire mitigation offered presentations about how communities can develop their own WUI management plans.
Moderated by Summit County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier, the panel included Logan Sand, recovery and resilience planner for the Colorado Department of Local Affairs; Molly Mowery, owner of Wildfire Planning International, a company that specializes in wildfire mitigation planning; and Jim Curnutte, Summit County’s director of community development. Each gave a presentation on a different aspect of wildfire mitigation planning.
In attendance were commissioners from counties like Ouray and Mineral who wanted to learn about more strategies they can use to mitigate fire danger.
Sand’s presentation gave an overview of the problem the state is facing when it comes to population growth and how close to danger areas people live.
“Colorado has 2 million people living in WUIs,” Sand said. “That’s a third of the population living in WUIs, and that’s going to continue increasing for the next 30 years or so.”
Sand added that as population has increased, wildfire counts have shot up as well. Pointing to a graph, Sand showed how the acreage of wildfires had grown from 20,000 acres annually in the 1960s to 100,000 acres today.
“That’s about 2,400 to 4,200 wildfires in the state annually,” Sand told the audience. “Aside from the danger to people, consider the cost of suppression and of spiking home insurance premiums.”
To counter the threat, Sand recommended Colorado communities make use of a toolbox of land use strategies and tools, such as the online Colorado Wildfire Risk Assessment Portal, which gives up-to-date color-coded maps of where wildfire risk is highest. These tools can be used to avoid developing near high-risk areas and adopt smarter land use planning strategies.
Mowery’s presentation focused on what kind of wildfire mitigation strategies communities should adopt. Mowery pointed out that 75 percent of population growth in the country is now happening in WUIs, making it critical that proper land use planning is used to avoid putting homes and neighborhoods at risk.
Mowery said that poor planning and lack of resources may mean subdivisions are at risk from day one.
“In certain communities, the fastest response time from a local fire department might be an hour,” Mowery said. “Developments that need to account for wildfire, but don’t have resources to do so, are a major problem.”
Mowery suggested new subdivisions are designed with fire protection standards in mind so that they do not have to rely exclusively on first responders. She also suggested communities adopt WUI codes specific to areas that would affect existing development.
Subdivision standards may require neighborhoods to be designed with easy water access, proper evacuation routes and signage, minimum fuel setbacks and protection of critical infrastructure and utilities in mind.
WUI codes would go further, with local authorities proactively engaging with homeowners to take care of hazards on their property, such as asking them to store firewood away from decks or clearing dry brush near their homes.
Jim Curnutte’s presentation focused on the fire mitigation efforts taking place in Summit County, where 80 percent of land area is owned by the U.S. Forest Service. The Forest Service budget has been significantly cut over the years, putting the onus on Summit to develop its own strategies to protect the community from wildfires. The job is particularly difficult given the devastation wrought by the Mountain Pine Beetle.
“50 percent of our trees up here are dead,” Curnutte explained. “It is a very high wildfire hazard. We also have the largest single water source for Denver, the Dillon Reservoir here, and Denver is very concerned about catastrophic wildfire affecting their water supply.”
The mining history of Summit County adds another wrinkle, with thousands of private mining claims in high-risk areas. Curnutte explained that Summit has been working with landowners in land purchase, exchange and easement deals to swap hazard-prone areas for areas in equal in value.
Curnutte also mentioned how building codes have been updated in the county to require new homes be built to fire spec, such as having Class A fireproof roofing, sprinkler systems for large buildings and defensible space regulations around buildings.
Landscape design standards are also enforced, including requiring non-flammable “breaks” in fencing to prevent fires spreading along a fence into homes and keeping fuels such as shredded rubber, pine needles and cedar chips away from structures. Summit County also has a wildfire council that meets quarterly to discuss fire mitigation strategy, as well as a very popular wood chipping program that goes around neighborhoods and chips wood cut down by homeowners for free.
Curnutte added that Summit had raised money for a seasonal Forest Service team to patrol the Dillon Ranger District and look for fire risks.
The panel offered a lot for commissioners from other rural counties to chew on, but offers hope that Colorado’s communities will be safer from the growing wildfire threat as they continue to grow and expand.
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