Crews help residents avoid losing homes

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— Hand crews from Pilot Station, Alaska, arrived in Routt County a few days ago to join hundreds of other firefighters assigned to fires burning in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness.

They expected to go straight to the fire lines, but fire managers had a different task in mind for the Alaskan troupe.

The 40 men and women from up north tore down dead trees and hauled away dense underbrush Friday that choked homeowners' yards along Seedhouse Road.

Another 140 firefighters joined them in clearing out vegetation and timber that lies dangerously close to homes in Elk Ridge Estates, a subdivision just off Seedhouse Road.

Their work was prompted by concerns that too many houses in wooded areas in the county would be easy targets in a wildland fire.

"If people don't help themselves, there's nothing we can do," Routt County Emergency Manager Chuck Vale said.

Crews are creating areas of defensible space around homes that lessen the chances of fire reaching those homes.

About 15 homeowners were able to take advantage of the offer thanks to an excess of manpower assigned to the Hinman and Burn Ridge fires, which fire officials are calling the Mount Zirkel Complex.

When recent rains moderated fire activity, fire managers were left wondering what to do with extra hand crews ordered to fight the blaze.

Fire managers decided it made the most sense to keep the crews busy on a project many homeowners do not have the resources or time for.

Ramon Regan assumed he would need a few years to clean out all the dead trees on his property.

As he watched the flurry of activity from his front porch Friday, all he could do was shake his head with unbelief.

"They're just great guys," Regan said. "I thought it was going to take three years, and they've done it in less than one week."

Cut-up branches now lie in large piles on his driveway. The assorted kindling will be burned this winter when the snow falls.

The yellow shirts of the firefighters bathed Regan's property in color Friday. The hand crews moved back and forth between slash piles and pockets of trees.

Jack Stone and Ralph Jack, both of Pilot Station, methodically broke larger braches into two smaller pieces and placed the felled timber on the ground beside them. Other members of their crew either carried the load or hauled it to slash piles with wheelbarrows.

"We haven't even been to the fire lines," Jack said.

They hadn't anticipated being so far from the fire, Stone said, but they were enjoying meeting the homeowners and being part of a project that would directly benefit the people who lived along Seedhouse Road.

"They're happy that we're getting all that dry timber out of there," said Jack, pointing to the trees behind him.

Crews took a break for lunch, but their feverish activity continued throughout the day.

One of the more visible signs of crews' work is the absence of low-lying tree limbs that earlier posed a threat to many of the homes in Elk Ridge Estates.

Firefighters removed enough branches from trees around Regan's house to offer shoulder-height clearance from the ground to the lowest tree limbs.

Firefighter Dave Marshall said substantial clearance was necessary to prevent ground fire from moving to the treetops.

If branches are out of reach, then a fire on the forest floor cannot spread to the trees, he said.

Homeowners worked closely with fire crews assigned to alleviating the threat of fire to their property, said Scott Davis, a Laramie wildland fire specialist in charge of structural protection efforts.

People who live along Seedhouse Road saw firsthand the difference a few cleared trees can make, he said.

Homeowners whose homes were framed by dense pockets of trees suddenly had views of the river or houses below, he said.

"It's going to be safer and it's going to be easier for us if we come back a second time," Davis said.

Christie Kinney saw her neighbors in a different light Friday. Kinney, whose house sits on a ridge above Elk Ridge Estates, was able to look down on the houses below after 30 to 40 firefighters removed almost 150 trees that grew beyond her deck. Tree stumps also dot her front yard, where 35 trees were cut down a few weeks ago.

Kinney said she recognizes the importance of doing what she can to protect her house from the inevitable threat of fire.

"I want to save my buildings," she said. "There's still plenty of trees."

Homeowners must take the lead in prepping their homes for the possibility of another fire, Vale said.

Not everyone has agreed to let the crews come on their property, but homeowners like Kinney and Regan have noted the changes with appreciation.

"I can't believe it," Regan said. "It looks so different."

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