Tips for keeping your home from going up in smoke

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Those who lived in the Four Corners in 2002 remember the fires that devastated the region during that dry summer. The fire season started locally with a wildfire on the New Mexico/Colorado border south of Elk Springs, and Elk Stream Ranch Subdivisions on the Montezuma/La Plata County border. If favorable weather conditions had not prevailed, the fires could have easily destroyed homes in East Canyon on the east side of Menefee Mountain.

LONG MESA FIRE 2002

Fire-mitigation efforts around structures on Chapin Mesa at Mesa Verde National Park saved those structures from burning during the Long Mesa Fire in 2002. Photo courtesy of Mesa Verde National Park / National Park Service.

The fire season continued that summer with the Long Mesa Fire at Mesa Verde burning two park homes, the Missionary Ridge and Valley Fires near Durango destroying 56 homes, the Hayman Fire burning 133 homes northwest of Colorado Springs, and the Rodeo- Chediski Fire in north-central Arizona burning nearly 500 homes and outbuildings.

Our current drought conditions are similar this year to those that preceded the devastating fire season a decade ago. April and May are some of the driest on record in Southwest Colorado. The Paradox and Little Sand Fires are already burning thousands of acres in Southwest Colorado. The Whitewater- Baldy Complex Fire in New Mexico has become the largest recorded fire in New Mexico history, surpassing last year’s Los Conchas Fire near Los Alamos, N.M.

Despite the devastating impacts of some of these recent wildfires, fire is a natural part of life in the Southwest. Forests have adapted to regular wildfire activity, but many homeowners who move into these fire-adapted ecosystems are still learning how to live with fire. Some are taking actions to make their families and homes more prepared to withstand wildfires, but to others, wildfire preparedness is a daunting task.

Homeowners have the ultimate responsibility for preparing their homes for wildfire, before a wildfire ever threatens. Assistant Chief John Vogel with the Fort Lewis Mesa Fire Protection District likes to say, “The fire department will do as much to defend your home during a wildfire as the homeowners have done prior to their arrival.” During a large wildfire, firefighters have to triage threatened interface areas to determine which homes they can safely protect and which homes will likely survive with little or no support from firefighters. When there are not enough fire trucks to stage at every house, homes whose owners have done very little before the fire are likely to get passed by.

So, what are you waiting for? No more excuses!

Find out more about wildfire risk by visiting www.southwestcoloradofires.org. Have a homesite assessment conducted to create a prioritized list of action items to defend your home. The U.S. Forest Service, Colorado State Forest Service, FireWise of Southwest Colorado, and your local fire-protection district can arrange to send an expert to your home. Since fires do not follow property boundaries, plan a neighborhood potluck and have a FireWise or local fire-department representative talk with you and your neighbors about your neighborhood’s fire risk. While they are in your neighborhood, have the experts conduct site assessments on homes and discuss opportunities to address community-level wildfire risks including access, signage, community fuel breaks and safe areas, evacuation routes, enhanced neighbor to neighbor communications, and more.

Contrary to common perception, defensible space does not mean clearing everything within 30 feet or 150 feet of your home. A defensible space can actually create a more healthy, natural and beautiful forest as well as protect your home from an approaching wildfire. Every step you take to improve your home’s defensible space will help firefighters safely protect your home. You can often keep that favorite pine tree near your home if you prune up the lower branches 8 -10 feet and remove tall grasses or small shrubs growing underneath it. The mitigation specialists listed above can help you determine the best plan for your property.

Remember, every step you take to improve your home’s defensible space will help firefighters to safely protect your home. There are many Colorado State Forest Service publications that provide guidance on how to create your home’s defensible space, http://csfs.colostate.edu/pages/wf-protection.html. You can use this guidance, or that received during a home site assessment, to guide your own work, or that of a contractor. If you cannot do the work on your own and cannot afford to hire a contractor, consider becoming a part of FireWIse of Southwest Colorado.

FireWise of Southwest Colorado offers education, planning, and mitigation support for homeowners and neighborhoods. By taking a community approach to wildfire preparedness, homeowners are able to complete more hazardous-fuels reduction by working together than they could accomplish on their own. FireWise offers mini grants for communities with FireWise Neighborhood Ambassadors, and other wildfire mitigation grant opportunities. To find out more about FireWise of Southwest Colorado and the Neighborhood Ambassador Program, contact your local chapter coordinator or visit www.southwestcoloradofires.org.

Rebecca Samulski is the wildfire education specialist for Montezuma Firewise.

Resources for wildfire information

Montezuma County Coordinator and Montezuma County Fire Chiefs Assn. Wildfire Education Specialist: Rebecca Samulski – 970-564-4007, montezumafirewise@gmail.com

Archuleta County Coordinator: Bill Trimarco – 970-264-0430, archuletafirewise@gmail.com

Program Director and La Plata County Coordinator: Pam Wilson – 970-385-8909, swcoloradofirewise@gmail.com

Colorado State Forest Service District Forester: Kent Grant – 970-247-5250, kgrant@lamar.colostate.edu

San Juan Public Lands Center (USFS/BLM) Wildfire Mitigation and Education Specialist: Craig Goodell – 970-385-1207, craig_goodell@blm.gov

Or contact your local Fire Protection District

Recreationists are advised to be cautious on public lands

Although fire restrictions have not yet been implemented on the San Juan National Forest, conditions are very dry, and fire danger is high. The public is advised to be aware that, in these dry conditions, wind can easily whip up a wildfire from the smallest spark or campfire. Please follow these safety tips when visiting your public lands:

  • If you are not inside a campground that offers fire grates, consider using a camp stove instead of building a fire.
  • If you must build a campfire, locate it away from overhanging branches, steep slopes and dry grass.
  • Build a fire ring out of rocks and keep your fire small.
  • Never leave a campfire unattended, even for a few minutes.
  •  Put campfires out every time you leave or go to bed by stirring with water until coals are cool to the touch.
  • Never toss cigarettes.
  • Don’t park hot vehicles over dry grass.
  • Be extra careful with anything that can create sparks, such as chainsaws, car exhaust pipes, guns, etc.

For more information, visit the San Juan Public Lands Center, 15 Burnett Court, Durango, CO, call 970 247-4874 or see www.fs.usda.gov/sanjuan.

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From June 2012.