Safe at home

New businesses aim to create defensible space for houses

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— The haze in Northwest Colorado's skies this week signaled the return of wildfire season, and the Colorado State Forest Service is offering cash incentives to property owners willing to remove some of the trees and brush surrounding their buildings.

The State Forest Service is willing to reimburse property owners for portions of the expenses they incur in creating defensible zones around their homes, as long as the work is completed to its standards.

The cost-sharing offered by the State Forest Service allows for up to $1,200 per homesite for creation of a defensible space. The offer extends to $500 per acre for forest thinning, and lesser amounts are available for disposal of waste that results from the thinning of trees and dead fuels. The cost-share is not to exceed 50 percent of the actual cost of accomplishing the work.

Done properly, reducing fuels surrounding structures enhances the probability that they will remain standing after a fire burns through the area, forester Terry Wattles said.

"There are a lot of people who buy homes to be in the woods," Wattles said. "This defensible space is not a clear cut around your house. But you need to (thin) the woods (to) about 125 feet from your house."

Wattles isn't saying that homes with defensible space around them cannot have any trees within a perimeter of 125 feet. However, the crowns of mature trees shouldn't extend within 15 feet of the structure, he said. And in the area 15 to 100 feet from the structure, "serious thinning" should be undertaken to ensure that the tips of branches in the crowns of the trees are no closer than 10 feet to one another.

The State Forest Service maintains a list of 11 area contractors who do fuels reduction work for rural homeowners.

Wattles and his staff don't endorse any particular contractor, or warranty their work. However, they are willing to visit private property to advise either do-it-yourselfers or contractors on the necessary steps to create acceptable defensible space around a home. In either case, the property owner won't receive reimbursement until the work meets State Forest Service specifications. And of course, property owners are free to undertake fuels reduction without government consultation.

Among the contractors offering fuels-reduction service are Dave Berry of Wildfire Prevention Services, a division of Mountain Berry Services, and Kevin Heiner of Rocky Mountain Fire Fuels Reduction. Both men started their companies recently but have experience and training to support their work.

Berry already owns a landscaping company and became involved in removing forest fuels in the course of caring for two homes in Strawberry Park.

He attended a three-day seminar in Durango recently that made him a "certified firewise" practitioner. He said he learned how to envision how fire moves through a forest during the training session.

"We looked at strategies to keep the fire from crowning," Berry said. "The goal is to keep the fire on the ground. A lot of people look down, but you have to look up and think of the crown of the tree. That's where fires really erupt.

Heiner was trained to fight both wildfires and structural fires while serving as a U.S. Air Force fireman in California for four years. More recently, he supervised a crew of 20 workers with the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps that was contracted to remove fuels from Rocky Mountain National Park.

One of the keys to reducing fire danger, he said, is to remove the "ladder fuels" that can allow a fire to grow from the ground up through underbrush and dead branches into the crown of a tree.

Within the zone 15 to 100 feet from a home, Heiner said it's critical to "take out all the ladder fuels -- brush and branches."

The contractors use small chainsaws on extension poles to trim branches off the bottom 10 feet of healthy trees.

Wattles said some people who initially resist the thinning of the forest surrounding their homes later find they appreciate the increased opportunities to view mule deer and other wildlife moving through the property.

Berry and his employee, Ryan McCauley, are currently working on a 25-acre parcel near Steamboat Lake owned by Wendy Crawford. One of the jobs they have undertaken is significantly thinning brush and downed timber in a 30-foot swath on either side of the lane leading to her home.

The labor-intensive effort improves the security of fire trucks and firefighters arriving on the scene in case of a fire, Berry said. One of the most apparent benefits is that arriving firefighters would be able to see the home through the trees as soon as they enter the property. That wasn't possible before.

Another of the labor-intensive aspects of creating defensible space in the wood surrounding a home is dealing with the waste -- sections of dead logs and the many branches trimmed from trees and shrubs. Both contractors rent heavy-duty chippers, when appropriate, to break fuels down into mulch that can be safely spread over the forest floor. Heavier materials are hauled away, sometimes to be sold as firewood.

Heiner and a colleague are currently working on fuels reduction projects for two different Steamboat Realtors. He's optimistic those jobs will yield referrals.

Heiner, 25, began his business by purchasing tools and chainsaws using credit cards that allow 12-month grace periods before he'll have to begin paying off the revolving credit. He said he was cautious in his use of the credit cards to ensure he doesn't get in too deep.

Ultimately, Heiner hopes his business will grow as insurance companies begin to require fuels reduction and creation of defensible space before they will be willing to cover rural homes in wooded areas.

Berry is interested in working with developers of wooded subdivisions to thin the woods even before lots are marketed.

-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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