'Living on borrowed time'

Is Routt County ready for wildfire season?


— Residents in places like Tree Haus, Dakota Ridge, Stagecoach and the Soda Creek Highlands better take a hard look at the landscaping around their homes if they don't want to fall victim to wildfires.

"We've identified these areas as problematic," said Routt County Emergency Manager Chuck Vale.

But those neighborhoods represent just a few of the homes that can easily be engulfed by wildfires, Vale said.

Vale and other Routt County and Steamboat Springs officials brought back the stern warning after a wildland fire conference held by the Colorado State Forest Service.

State foresters are pushing hard for homeowners to take responsibility for themselves.

"I think we've been living on borrowed time," said District Forester Terry Wattles.

In fact Routt County's first wildfire struck Thursday in Sleepy Bear on the west edge of Steamboat Springs

Waddles said the big wildfires on the front range and places like New Mexico should serve as a warning. He said a wildfire last year barely missed homes in Stagecoach.

Waddles said all forests burn eventually, and Routt County homeowners better be prepared.

"The fire departments will do the best job they can, but you need to do as much for yourself as you can," Wattles said.

"A lot of it is doing common sense things around your house, like thinning out the brush around your house."

No one knows that better than Steamboat Springs' new fire inspector who saw the High Meadows wildfire in Jefferson County firsthand.

Fire Inspector Nate Marshall said if Jefferson County homeowners left their houses susceptible to wildfire, firefighters were less likely to protect the home.

"We didn't have enough resources to protect all the homes and we had to make a lot of hard choices," Marshall said.

"Our own safety was first priority," said Marshall who served as field observer to the destructive wildfire that destroyed 58 structures, including $14 million worth of homes.

"If a house was indefensible... took too much time to fight. For example, if it had open decks or shake shingles... we didn't go in."

Marshall is heading up the city's wildfire mitigation project that will identify problem areas in the city and rural area surrounding Steamboat.

Some of those areas have already been identified by Chuck Vale who said all you have to do is look around.

He said problematic areas include Tree Haus, Dakota Ridge, Steamboat Pines, Soda Creek Highlands, Elk Ridge homesites, and Stagecoach.

During the state forest conference, officials were shown stunning pictures of homes and trees destroyed everywhere, then all of a sudden one house would be standing.

In some cases, just the opposite occurred.

"In Los Alamos (New Mexico), trees were still standing next to houses that burned," said County Commissioner Doug Monger who attended the conference.

It's all about what homeowners are doing to protect their proptery said Vale.

"We better be doing a lot of mitigation in Routt County, and we better hurry," Vale said.


Poor access is a big problem said District Forester Wattles.

Folks living in poorly planned areas that are remote and have narrow roads can't be helped much.

"The roads may be steep or winding and trucks can't make it up there," Wattles said.

"Some of the problem areas have no signs or house numbers."

In some cases, the county doesn't maintain these private roads and homeowners or neighborhood associations will have to make the appropriate improvements.

And sometimes, the roads were planned decades ago, and not much can be done about improving them.

The forest service also recommends those people living out in the rural areas develop some kind of outdoor water supply like a small pond, cistern, well or hydrant.

The steeper your land, the more trouble you'll have with fire as well.

Heat rises, making steeper slopes more vulnerable to fire. Homes located on ridge tops or in canyons have less chance of surviving wildfires as well.

"It's up to the individual homeowner to access their own vulnerability," Commissioner Monger said.

"If you have anything growing near your home and you're not in the flats, you're susceptible to wildfire."

Waddles said trees like aspens or cottonwoods aren't very susceptible to fires, but sage brush, oak brush and cone-bearing trees make fires harder to control.

The State Forest Service suggests creating a 30-foot "defensible" space.

"Some people think 'we've got to cut down all the trees,' but that's not so," said county planner Chris Brookshire who attended the state forest conference.

However, the forest service recommends cutting away low branches and thinning out trees and weeds and bushes close to the home.

"We see a lot of overgrown vegetation, excessive plants and trees right up against the house," said Fire Inspector Marshall about most mountain homes.

The steeper the slope, the more "defensible" space needed. For example, level terrain would need 30 feet of defensible space, while a 30 percent slope would need about 45 feet of defensible space.

A 55 percent slope would burn at four times what a level terrain house would, so about 60' of defensible space is needed with more defensible space going downhill.

Of course, materials used to build homes can be important. Stucco, stone and such won't burn like wood products. Decks can also be a problem since they're a natural trap for heat and they often face downhill toward a fire. The forest service suggests building a noncombustible patio and wall below the deck.

Wattles and other fire officials say residents aren't on their own. Fire fighters from the county, city and state are willing to come out to neighborhoods and meet with homeowners and associations to help them with suggestions on making their homes safer.

"The county and state will help," said Commissioner Monger.

"We'll figure out how to get someone out there."


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