Summit County officials keep sounding alarm on wildfire mitigation
Snow has started melting and trickling down into the valleys in Summit County. As the forest shakes off the snow and starts drying out, firefighters and emergency officials have started gearing up for wildfire season.
At the monthly Forest Health Task Force meeting, officials continued banging the drum on wildfire mitigation and defensible space. Both are seen as critical to maintaining the county’s long-running streak of no lives lost or structures damaged by wildfire in living memory.
Summit Fire & EMS public information officer Steve Lipsher was the featured speaker at the meeting. He outlined exactly what firefighters prefer when it comes to defensible space around homes, and what kind of fixes and landscaping work folks can do on their property to best ensure homes aren’t damaged and firefighters are kept safe.
“We want homeowners to carve out adequate defensible space, which would give firefighters a fighting chance to save homes from encroaching wildfire and ember storms,” Lipsher said. “Defensible space protects property better than any type of fire mitigation.”
To help homeowners figure out what kind of work needs doing to safeguard their property, Lipsher said that both Summit Fire and Red, White & Blue fire protection districts offer free property evaluations to flag fire concerns.
“Property owners can contact me or Keith McMillan at Red, White & Blue and set up a time, and we’ll go out to your home for free and do a nonbinding, voluntary evaluation to talk about basic defensible space principles,” Lipsher said. “That includes pushing back vegetation from the home and getting rid of avenues that fire can reach the home from. We also want to raise awareness and preach a lot about personal preparedness.”
Aside from clearing or at least creating zones of sparser vegetation from at least 10 and preferably up to 20 feet away from a home, Lipsher said firefighters would prefer if homeowners go up to their property lines to clear away branches close to the ground to prevent “ladder fuels,” as well as clearing grass, pine needles and pine cones from bases of trees, as they are the easiest way for a ground fire to climb across a tree canopy and into a house. Lipsher said that 6 feet above ground is a good rule of thumb for how high to cut limbs.
Lipsher also made a special mention of juniper bushes, which he often sees far too close to decks.
“Juniper bushes are very flammable. They can get super hot and literally explode,” Lipsher said. “We don’t want to see any junipers within 30 feet of homes.”
Aside from landscaping work, Lipsher would prefer homeowners looking to making some basic and fairly cheap fixes that can be critical to safeguarding a home, such as creating fence breaks and interrupting other contiguous avenues from which a fire can reach the house.
Firewood piles are also often a significant concern, with homeowners far too often keeping them on top of, under or next to property decks and walls in the summer. What’s worse, they might not even realize a fire started in a pile until it’s too late.
“It’s uncanny how two or three days after fire has passed, and a homeowner stops getting worried, but all of a sudden we get a 9-1-1 call about how their wood piles are on fire,” Lipsher said. “The fire started two or three days earlier, when tiny embers landed on a pile and started soaking around the inside.”
Additionally, there’s the matter of roofs and attic vents, which have been a common way for fire embers to float from fires many yards away and set a property alight, even with defensible space.
“If you do nothing else, replace your roof shingles with a metal roof — it will dramatically increase home odds of surviving wildfire,” Lipsher said. “There are also simple things like installing screens on the inside of attic vents so embers can’t go inside. Sometimes people are pleasantly surprised at how simple these things are.”
Lipsher said that he can be contacted at 970-262-5100, extension 125 for homeowners to schedule a voluntary property fire inspection. Slot availability and timing is limited.
Dan Schroder of Summit County’s CSU extension office added that the county’s chipping program, which gives homeowners the ability to have their flammable property fuels chipped and hauled away for free, will be coming back this year with a few tweaks to avoid the delays and missed passes last year.
The chipping program will be extended an extra week, to eight weeks, and will also reverse its order with the northern portion of the county chipped first and the southern portion last. The full schedule for the chipping program will be released in the spring.
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