Time to prepare: A look at one Hamilton Creek resident’s journey to mitigate risks nearly one year after the Ptarmigan Fire threatened her home

Summit Fire & EMs Steve Lipsher addresses a grove of aspens growing near a home in Hamilton Creek as part of a free fire assessment from
Luke Vidic/Summit Daily News

After one of the wettest summers in recent memory, dry weather could be inbound, potentially reigniting wildfire concerns as the one-year anniversary of the Ptarmigan Fire approaches.

That wildfire erupted on the southwestern slope of Ptarmigan Peak on Sept. 27. Hamilton Creek neighborhood residents were evacuated about an hour and a half after the first reports of smoke on the mountain.

“It was terrifying,” Hamilton Creek resident Patricia Gunckel said, adding that the fire scorched the earth within a couple miles of her home.

Gunckel was in Denver at the time, but thoughts of the material things she would lose worried her. She returned with her niece a few days later when officials gave residents a small window to return and collect personal items.

The whole experience brought fire safety to Gunckel’s attention, and she said she’s spent the summer preparing her home for the next fire, since according to Summit Fire & EMS spokesperson Steve Lipsher, “It’s a question of when, not if” the next fire comes.

The road up to her home through Hamilton Creek is long and winding. While Hamilton Creek has been a proactive neighborhood and attempted to earn Firewise status, Lipsher said if a fire were to start on the other side of the valley, or lower in the Hamilton Creek area, it’s possible the fire could block access to Gunckel’s home and others located up the hillside.

As a result, small steps to protect the home can be imperative. “Any one thing you do that can keep fire from reaching your home may be the one thing that saves your home,” Lipsher said.

Lipsher led Gunckel through a free risk assessment Friday and showed Gunckel potential risks to her property. Summit Fire & EMS and Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District officials conduct free risk assessments for the community. The assessments can enlighten homeowners to potential fire risks, future fire risks and evacuation tips.

Before navigating the property, Lipsher addressed how environmental aspects beyond the property’s lines would impact fire risk. Gunckel’s property is located on the Ptarmigan Peak hillside. Below it is the Blue River and Colorado Highway 9, and above it is a stand of aspen and lodgepole pines.

“Where do you think the greatest fire risk would come from?” Lipsher asked.

Surprisingly, he said the biggest threat would come from below. Fires are more likely to travel up a hillside than down one, and they’re more likely to spark from people — chains dragging on the highway or a lit cigarette falling from someone’s hand as they stand on their patio.

Knowing how a fire will likely behave in the neighborhood impacts how a homeowner should prepare themselves. In Hamilton Creek’s case, the neighborhood’s layout could create problems for residents wanting to evacuate or return to grab personal items.

Lipsher emphasized the importance of preparing an evacuation plan ahead of time. Residents can create a list of their most precious items and pin it next to their front door, Lipsher said. He also encouraged Gunckel and other residents to keep a sticky note by their door for them to write, “Firefighters, we’ve evacuated,” an important note when first responders go door-to-door looking for anyone left behind, he said.

When assessing the property itself, the assessor checks the zones around a home: the immediate, intermediate and extended zones. The immediate zone is the first 5 feet extending from a home. Easily combustible material, like sticks and leaves that like to gather around a home’s foundation, should be removed, Lipsher said. The intermediate zone extends up to about 30 feet from the home. In this area, smaller trees and bushes should be trimmed, as homeowners should try to “break the chain” of a possible fire in the zone, Lipsher said.

“Cut them before you become attached to them,” Lipsher said, pointing to small aspen “runners” shooting up from the ground. Anything less than 1 inch in diameter and within 15 feet of the home should be chopped, Lipsher advised.

Firewood stacked against a home is a common issue Lipsher finds during his assessments. In the winter, that’s fine, but during the warmer months homeowners should move them away from the house.

Moving closer to the home, Lipsher addressed a few other often overlooked elements. Patio furniture can catch fire near the home much like a tree, so if possible residents should move their chairs and umbrellas inside if they have the time before evacuating. Gutters and nooks in a roof should be swept clear of combustibles. Wind eddies on porches and in concave corners along a home’s foundation should be cleared of pine needles, leaves and other fire starters.

Lipsher recommended following the cigarette lighter test: if a handheld flip lighter could ignite it, get rid of it. The flame coming from a cigarette lighter is comparable to an ember falling from a wildfire, Lipsher said.

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