Summit County officials work to unify fire restrictions before wildfire season
As winter continues to linger on the snowcapped peaks around the Western Slope, Summit County officials are already gearing up for wildfire season.
This winter, representatives from towns, emergency services and stakeholder groups around Summit County gathered to hash out a new model on fire restrictions, hoping to create a more consistent document used across the county and to improve public messaging.
“The big goal from that work group was to take a look at Stage 1 and Stage 2 fire restrictions and try to provide uniformity and clarity,” said Brian Bovaird, the county’s director of emergency management. “Until now we have done a good job coordinating when we go into restrictions and out. But every single town and the county had different language and policies. It was really confusing for our visitors, our residents and really for us.”
Bovaird said that there wasn’t any one incident that spurred a change in policy for different entities in the county, but rather a desire to address a “collective confusion” around the policies and simplify the restrictions for visitors venturing to different areas around the county.
There aren’t any radical changes to the content of the policy, and they all generally reflect the restrictions and fire ban criteria residents are already familiar with. While the language isn’t finalized, officials say it represents a conflation of existing fire restrictions and criteria for fire bans from towns and the county.
The county’s firefighters applaud the more unified approach.
“It’s super beneficial,” said Jay Nelson, deputy chief of administration with the Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District. “From an enforcement understanding and response scenario getting everyone on the same page builds continuity. With recreational fires, it won’t just be a guess for citizens and guests for what’s allowed in one spot and across the street in another. Everybody can get on the same page.”
Officials are also hoping the county’s entities can get on the same page in regards to when to enact restrictions, and when to drop them. Bovaird said there’s a weekly call during wildfire season in which the county, towns and emergency services collaborate and share information and opinions — meaning nobody should be left out of the loop when the time is right for restrictions.
“It’s the same policy, just brought together in a unified manner,” said Bovaird. “The other great thing about that is now the public messaging will become much more effective. We can all collectively print the same materials for all the storefronts no matter where you are. It reinforces that message wherever you are.”
Diving into the Data
Along with revamping the county’s policies on restrictions and fire bans, stakeholders in the area have also been taking a hard look into the methodology officials are using to decide when to go into restrictions.
“We’ve been looking at, and continue to look the science, data and real world conditions we use to make decisions on when to go into restrictions,” said Bovaird. “We want to find out if the data we’re using to evaluate decisions is accurate, or if we need to look at changing some of those values. It’s not ideal if we’re following the criteria we use to evaluate conditions, and we’re not getting restrictions in place soon enough.”
It takes about a week for the county to enact fire restrictions, requiring a draft proposal to be reviewed by the Summit Board of County Commissioners during a normal work session (the process can be expedited if the commissioners get together for an emergency hearing).
But over the last two years, officials have missed the mark, if just barely. Bovaird said that both the Buffalo Mountain Fire and the Peak 2 Fire — two of the county’s most hair-raising blazes in memory — broke out after proposals for Stage 1 restrictions were submitted, but before they could be enacted. Both fires were believed to be human caused.
“The problem is — as one of the incident commanders said last year — the new normal is nothing’s normal,” said Bovaird. “With the condition of the forest and weather patterns, have we surpassed the point where historical data is no longer reliable? A lot of what we do is based on historical data. We’re seeing across the country fires are growing bigger and hotter, and we want to stay in front of making sure we have the proper criteria to determine when to go into restrictions.”
County officials have teamed up with climatologists and fire scientists with the U.S. Forest Service to begin diving into how they’re using data in relation to new climate conditions over recent years, along with potentially reconsidering how officials look at measures like ERC — energy release component — and other important factors in determining when to enact fire bans.
While the project is still in its infancy, Bovaird said there could be changes as early as this year if it’s determined the methodology could be improved.
“The conversations have begun and I think especially as this season comes closer it’ll be a help in determining if any changes need to be made,” said Bovaird. “We need to evaluate our process in real time, with the understanding that we’re looking to see if we’re still if we’re still in a good place. Some of that could be done this summer, if we find there’s a better mark.”
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