Officials address fire danger

Wildfires have fire protection districts concerned about lack of resources

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— A wildfire in Routt County last week served as a reminder that the county is not immune to the fires raging near Glenwood Springs and Denver.

A small bullet provided the sole variable needed to ignite a small brush fire south of Hayden Wednesday.

A marksman at the shooting range along County Road 37 fired his rifle, sending a hot piece of metal flying into ideal fire conditions.

Acres of withering sagebrush, brittle from drought, and the searing afternoon sun reacted to the fiery ball and burst into flames, charring 2 1/2 acres.

The flames threatened neither structures nor residents. But future fires may not be as forgiving.

"It's just one of those things where it's out of our control," said Kent Foster, zone fire management officer with the U.S. Forest Service. "But we have to be ready for it."

Fire chiefs and firefighters in fire districts across Routt County understand the gravity of the situation. But they also recognize an inherent need that hinders their ability to fight wildfires.

"We're stretched pretty thin," said Peter Baillie, fire chief of the North Routt Fire Protection District.

About a half-dozen volunteer firefighters from the West Routt Fire Protection District responded to the fire south of Hayden.

The fire warranted the efforts of 20 people, Routt County Emergency Manager Chuck Vale said.

Vale and others on the front lines of fighting similar fires understand firsthand the county's lack of firefighting resources.

Manpower and equipment from the state and federal government are currently committed to higher-priority fires in Colorado and the West.

Calls for assistance with a 12-acre fire on private land in northwestern Routt County and southern Wyoming last weekend netted a handful of firefighters with the understanding they would eventually be needed to fight higher-priority fires.

When future fires arise, fire districts in Routt County must be prepared to meet them head on without the assurance of outside help.

Wildfires that threaten life and property would merit more attention and possibly more resources for Routt County, but those fires would still need to be measured against the scope of larger fires.

"It all comes down to where the fire is and what resources are available," Vale said.

Bryan Rickman isn't counting on outside assistance. The fire chief of the West Routt Fire Protection District finds some assurance in a countywide agreement among fire districts to respond to wildland fires anywhere in the county.

Firefighters from Steamboat Springs assisted North Routt volunteer firefighters last weekend in battling the blaze in the northwest section of the county and southern Wyoming.

"The cooperation we are seeing is just an indication of our preparation," Rickman said.

But fire chiefs admit cooperation poses a risk to individual fire districts.

When fire districts contribute volunteers and equipment to wildland fires in neighboring fire districts, they compromise their ability to respond to their own fires.

Towns are left unprotected while firefighters are off battling blazes beyond city limits, Vale said.

Fire chiefs want to work together, but they foresee the danger of spreading their personnel too thin, Baillie said.

"How much do you strip your own district, and how much do you send them and still protect yourself?" he asked.

Mutual aid among fire districts is hard to come by during the day, said Bob Struble, fire chief of the Steamboat Springs Fire Department.

The fire season places greater demands on volunteer firefighters, who must try to get away from their daytime jobs to fight blazes in the county, he said.

"We are kind of left holding our own," he said.

As demands on firefighting resources intensify, prevention becomes an important catch phrase among those responsible for protecting life and property from wildfire.

Human factors that cause or foster wildfires must be controlled, Struble said.

Education is critical in reducing fire potential this summer, he said.

National, state and local media attention to fires in the West has increased public awareness of its responsibility to avoid behavior that encourages wildfire, fire chiefs said.

"If it looks like fire, don't do it," Vale cautioned.

The loss of homes and property to the Hayman and Coal Seam fires has struck a chord with local homeowners.

People who live where wooded and brush areas mix with residential areas have taken an interest in protecting their homes from fire, said Chuck Wisecup, fire chief of the Oak Creek Fire Protection District.

In such places as Stagecoach and the Steamboat Lake area, forest and brush shroud residential areas.

Stagecoach resident Chris Zuschlag is taking no chances.

Zuschlag, a landscape contractor, parks a hydroseeder in his driveway every evening.

He uses the hydroseeder, which holds 1,000 gallons of water, for landscaping projects.

But its capacity to hold water would come in handy should fire ever strike his community.

At night he waters the trees and shrubs around his home to decrease the chance of fire.

"If there's a fire in Stagecoach, I'm all over it," Zuschlag said. "I'll drop what I'm doing and go."

Homeowners have and must continue to aggressively do their part to minimize the risk of wildland fires, fire chiefs said.

"They (homeowners) just can't sit at home, dial 911 and assume 25 fire trucks are going to show up," Baillie said.

"It's not going to happen."

Baillie and the volunteer firefighters of the North Routt Fire Protection District walk the perimeters of residences in the fire district to give them a better idea of which homes will be more difficult to defend from wildland fire.

Several homeowners have taken precautions by thinning fuels around their property.

But Baillie still worries about his district's ability to handle every call for help.

Fires will have to be prioritized, he said, and fire districts will have to make do with the resources at hand.

He looks upward for answers but finds no assurance.

"I'm extremely nervous," he said. "I look at the sky and don't see very good news."

So he, like the rest of his colleagues, expects the worst and hopes for the best, knowing full well the matter is out of his hands.

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