On Wednesday, firefighters with the North Routt Fire Protection District responded to a fire at a garage in the heavily wooded Willow Creek Pass Village subdivision. This time of year, firefighters always are concerned with structure fires turning into wildfires.

Photo by Matt Stensland

On Wednesday, firefighters with the North Routt Fire Protection District responded to a fire at a garage in the heavily wooded Willow Creek Pass Village subdivision. This time of year, firefighters always are concerned with structure fires turning into wildfires.

Facing high wildfire threat, Routt County residents told be prepared

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There is concern that a devastating fire similar to the Black Forest Fire that started in June in Colorado Springs could happen in Routt County.

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Bulldozers are staged along a road at the Black Forest Fire.

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The sun sets behind a blanket of smoke just west of Steamboat Springs in summer 2012. Routt County managed to avoid a major wildfire during that busy fire season and authorities are hopeful for a similar outcome from this season.

Code Red alerts

Routt County residents are encouraged to register their cellphone numbers and email addresses to receive emergency alerts.

Residents can sign up to receive the free alerts by visiting Routt County’s website at www.co.routt.co.us and clicking on “Code Red” at the top of the page.

Routt County paid $50,000 to launch the Code Red service in 2009. It pays an annual fee of $12,000 to retain and maintain the system.

Landline phone numbers supplied by Century Link already should be in the database, but cellphone users need to register their numbers separately. Residents who use Internet phone services like Vonage also need to register their numbers.

Registered numbers are added to the database immediately. If people are unsure whether their landlines or cellphone numbers are in the database, there is no harm in re-registering.

It had been more than a month since Routt County had seen any moisture, but the hillsides were surprisingly green as Oak Creek Fire Chief Chuck Wisecup drove his truck through the remote subdivisions in Stagecoach.

“It’s deceiving,” Wisecup said about the conditions. “Just look at the grass and you can see the dead stuff underneath.”

Just a couple weeks earlier in the middle of June, Wisecup had helped fight what would end up being the most destructive fire in Colorado history. More than 500 homes were destroyed in the Black Forest Fire in Colorado Springs. Wisecup is hopeful that the July monsoonal rains will come and that such a destructive fire never occurs in Routt County.

Last year, local officials said Routt County dodged a bullet.

“This place could have burst into flames and burned to the ground last year,” said Robert Skorkowsky, a board member with the Stagecoach Property Owners Association. “I’m surprised it didn’t.”

This year’s dryness has renewed some wildfire concerns.

“If something got going, and we had a wind behind it, we would have a problem,” Skorkowsky said.

All it takes is a lightning strike or a rogue ember from a campfire or structure fire.

This time of year, when firefighters respond to a structure fire, the structure is not the only thing at risk. That is what North Routt Fire Protection District Chief Bob Reilley was thinking as he responded Wednesday to a structure fire in the heavily wooded Willow Creek Pass Village subdivision.

“This time of year, we’re certainly worried about a structure fire becoming a wildfire or vice versa,” Reilley said.

Despite some recent brief rain showers, all of Routt County once again is on alert this wildfire season.

“The fire behavior is a lot more extreme for this time of year than we were expecting,” Routt County Emergency Management Director Bob Struble said. “You can attribute that to the prolonged drought we’re in. Drought is expected to persist and in some places intensify.”

The U.S. Drought Monitor currently labels Routt County as being in moderate to severe drought.

Optimism gone

Average snowfall was seen during the winter and a wet May left some optimistic that the end of the drought was within reach.

“I think those gains are gone,” North Routt Chief Reilley said.

In late June, local fire officials said fire conditions were about two weeks away from being as severe as they were at the same time last year.

Stagecoach residents are not the only ones preparing for a “what if?” scenario.

Local fire officials only can speculate about what a large fire could turn into if it spilled over from areas of vegetation such as Emerald Mountain and into urban areas.

“It could blow off the top and into a number of subdivisions,” Struble said.

From there, imagine embers carrying the fire up to a mile away and starting spot fires or possibly even a structure fire. That is the extreme fire behavior that firefighters have seen this summer, especially at the West Fork Complex Fire that torched its way through beetle-killed trees in Southern Colorado. In Northwest Colorado, the large number of resources needed to start fighting such an aggressive fire would be 24 to 48 hours away.

“We do not have the resources that they have available on the Front Range,” Struble said.

Fire officials say residents have done a lot of work in the past year to protect their homes.

North Routt’s Reilley and Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue Chief Mel Stewart say that work was done largely because of the fires on the Front Range in 2012. Reilley said the fires, specifically the Waldo Canyon Fire, served as a stark reminder of how devastating a fire can be.

“Residents are looking to finish mitigation projects,” Reilley said. “They heard the message. They’re trying to get the work done.”

The Waldo experience

The Waldo Canyon Fire in June 2012 tore through a Colorado Springs subdivision equipped with fire hydrants. That fire showed that no home was immune to destruction. With 347 homes destroyed, two deaths and nearly half a billion dollars in damage, it was at the time the most destructive fire in Colorado.

“As bad as the Colorado Springs fire was, the good that’s come out of that is it educated people about what could happen,” Stewart said.

The Black Forest Fire this summer north of Colorado Springs, now the most destructive fire in state history, had four local firefighters helping save homes.

Reilley said firefighters working the fire learned several important things, and residents should consider them when doing mitigation work around their homes.

Reilley said the houses in the Black Forest Fire that fared better were ones that had a buffer a couple of feet wide of noncombustible material around them. Firefighters also noticed that flammable landscaping material, such as timbers and wood chips, sometimes provided a path for the fire to reach the house.

Risk in Steamboat

In Steamboat, several areas have been identified as being at risk, and some mitigation work has been done to protect the homes in the Sanctuary subdivision should a fire work its way down Fish Creek Canyon.

Homes in the area of Burgess Creek Road and near Steamboat Ski Area also have been identified as being at risk.

“The fires across the state have everyone at the resort proactively thinking about fire safety and prevention,” ski area spokesman Mike Lane said. “The resort will again conduct public education/information about fire ratings for the area to guests as was the case during last summer’s dry season. We’re also conducting fire awareness meetings with employees, especially those out on the mountain on daily occasions.”

Again this summer, the ski area is keeping its snowmaking lines charged so they can be tapped for water should a fire break out at the ski area.

Another message local fire chiefs are stressing is that residents need to be ready to evacuate, and they should not wait to be told to evacuate.

“If you see something, leave,” Reilley said. “If it’s safe, we can get you back in. I don’t want to deal with a fatality.”

In addition to preparing properties to withstand a fire, families should come up with a plan. Decide ahead of time where to meet and where livestock is going to go. Reilley said residents who run businesses out of their home need to think about how they are going to run their business should they evacuate. Residents also should pack an emergency go kit that contains everything needed to be away from home for three days. v

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