Because several major wildfires are burning across the state, some residents may be wondering about the danger of wildfires occurring in Routt County. We asked Chuck Vale, Routt County emergency manager, to give his input on wildfire issues in the county and how wildfires would be handled.
Q. Describe the conditions of our forests, public and private land, in comparison to other parts of the state.
A. Our forests are generally in poor health condition. The forest is aging and in need of good health management. In a lot of areas, the trees are growing too close together. In order to improve this condition, it may include thinning, logging, or the use of prescribed burning. In several areas we have the beetle epidemic occurring.
Q. What is the likelihood of a fire like the Hayman or Coal Seam fire happening in Routt County?
A. As our forest health worsens and continued drought conditions occur, the greater the likelihood of catastrophic fires occurring. With the growth of homes in the "urban interface" areas of the county and the closer people are to the forest, the greater the chance of accidental fire occurrence. We also have a great potential for lightning-caused fires in this county. As the monsoon weather patterns begin bringing moisture up from the gulf coast, it brings with it the afternoon lightning. With the thunderstorms come the erratic winds. This combination could result in a large fire occurrence.
Q. Are certain residential areas more at risk to wildland fire than other residential areas in the county?
A. Yes, there are a lot of factors that need to be included in the risk of wildfire. Is there good forest health management in the area, good defense around the structures, good access for fire equipment, good addressing, good water supplies for the fire department, distance from your local fire department, is the structure designed and built with "fire wise" considerations? As you can see, these can vary greatly as you travel around the county.
Q. How well equipped are fire departments, in terms of resources and firefighters, to handle a major wildfire?
A. The fire departments in this county are very well equipped and trained to deal with most incidents that occur. The challenge to them is that wildfire takes a lot of people to cut a line all the way around them. This is very labor intensive. They are mostly made up of volunteers who take time off from their jobs to respond to emergency calls (most employers are willing to support them). An average structure fire may last up to three hours. With a wildfire it may be three full days. The other challenge to them is if a catastrophic wildfire occurs in the "urban interface" area, where multiple structures are at risk or involved. It takes a large amount of resources. A single department does not have that capability. This involves all of the fire departments to commit to helping each other and the county. When this occurs it leaves very limited resources available to respond to other emergencies within the county. All of the fire departments are always looking for more people to commit to being a volunteer. There are a lot of hours spent in training these dedicated people.
Q. The Steamboat Springs City Council recently canceled its Fourth of July fireworks display. Do you think that was the right decision, given the present circumstances? Why or why not?
A. Yes, and I thank them for making this difficult decision. These decisions are not made lightly. We are all aware of the economic impact this may have on our community. We must balance it against the cost to suppress large fires. The entire state is in a drought condition it has never experienced before. The fire experts in this county and the state are meeting weekly to discuss the current conditions; with this information the fire chief had very good reason to make the recommendation to the council.