99% of Routt County residents live in areas at risk of wildfire | SteamboatToday.com

99% of Routt County residents live in areas at risk of wildfire

Oak Creek Fire Protection District Capt. Jeff Buffetti tends to a controlled burn in Oak Creek in 2010. With wildfires getting larger and more expensive, officials are encouraging Routt County residents to focus on mitigating the risk of fires spreading to their homes.
Courtesy Photo

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — State forest officials addressed a statistic that may surprise many locals during the Routt County Fire Mitigation Conference, May 11, at the Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs. 

According to research from Amanda West, a science information manager for the Colorado State Forest Service, more than 99% of Routt County residents live in the wildland urban interface. 

Wildfire officials use this term to denote an area near or within flammable vegetation like brush or forests that are prone to wildfires and pose risks to the people living there. As mountain towns like Steamboat grow, more homes are built in these areas, meaning more people are susceptible to fires. 

A map shows the areas in Routt County within the wildland urban interface, which pose greater risk of wildfires, as created by the Colorado State Forest Service. For a full, interactive version of the map, view it online.

Statewide, the U.S. Forest Service found that 2.9 million Coloradans live in the wildland urban interface as of 2017, up from 2 million in 2012. 

At the same time, wildfires are becoming larger and more expensive, owing to years of drought conditions and a degrading health of forests plagued by tree-killing insects and disease. 

Last summer was one of the worst and most expensive fire seasons on record. A total of 229 fires burned more than 108,000 acres across Routt, Moffat, Rio Blanco, Jackson and Grand counties. That more than doubled the acreage burned in 2017 and outpaced any fire season in the last 20 years.  

Routt County officials are still incurring costs from last summer’s fire suppression efforts. As David “Mo” DeMorat, emergency operations director, explained, the county has no fire suppression assets of its own, so it reimburses firefighting agencies for their efforts.

For the past two years, the county’s budget for fire suppression reimbursements has been $31,000. Local costs from last summer more than doubled that budget, coming in at around $83,000, according to DeMorat. He is still expecting a bill of $200,000 to cover reimbursements to federal firefighting agencies. 

Tips to protect your home from wildfire
  • Create a defensible space of at least 30 feet around your house and outbuildings.
  • Keep grass, both green and dormant, closely mowed. Space trees wide apart and prune lower tree branches well up from the ground. Keep tall grass, brush and trees out from under utility lines to protect essential services.
  • Make sure roads and driveways are passable by wide vehicles in all types of weather and that bridges are strong enough to support heavy, water-laden fire trucks.
  • Make your home address easily visible and include both your house number and street name in your address.
  • Establish fuel breaks along roadways and between buildings and fields or woodlands.
  • Keep mufflers and spark arrestors on agricultural equipment in proper working order, and watch out for rocks and metal when bush hogging or mowing.
  • Monitor hay baling operations closely. Check for hot bearings or hay caught in rollers. Keep a fire extinguisher handy.
  • Watch out for sparks when using welding equipment to build fences or repair equipment.
  • Avoid driving or parking vehicles in grassy areas where tall, dry grass can come into contact with hot pollution control equipment under your vehicle.
  • Postpone outdoor burning until your area greens up. Check with your local fire department to determine if all restrictions on outdoor burning have been lifted.

Source: Routt County Emergency Management website

Other parts of the country are footing even higher costs. The Camp Fire in California, which killed 85 people and almost wiped out the entire town of Paradise, caused an estimated $16.5 billion in damages, according to John Twitchell, a Steamboat Springs-based forester with the Colorado State Forest Service.

“The costs of suppression are getting more and more expensive,” DeMorat said during a panel discussion at the conference. “It just not sustainable.”

An over-zealous policy of fire suppression in the past century also led to what officials at the conference referred to as “fire debt,” causing an extreme buildup of debris in forests, effectively making them tinderboxes. 

A main goal of the wildfire mitigation conference was to educate residents on how to prepare their homes for fire season as a way of reducing the size of blazes and the costs of suppressing them. One of the most important steps people can take is clearing their yards of that debris, like fallen branches or dead trees.

“Every dollar you spend (on mitigation), you’re saving four on suppression costs,” Twitchell said during the same panel discussion. 

After this recent bout of rain and snow, area residents can easily be lulled into a false sense of security. Fire meteorologists do not expect this summer’s wildfires to be as disastrous as last year, but they still forecast an average risk for Routt County throughout most of the fire season.

In an average season, about 300 fires spark in Northwest Colorado — Routt, Moffat, Rio Blanco, Jackson and Grand counties — according to Colt Mortenson, a regional fire management officer for the Bureau of Land Management.

Here are some ways to protect your home from a wildfire, adapted from the Forest Service’s mitigation guide. For the complete guide, visit http://www.csfs.colostate.edu.

Create defensible space

A home’s proximity to flammable vegetation will determine the size of defensible space residents should maintain around their home. The Forest Service suggests a 100-foot radius of defensible space, but Routt County’s mitigation guide recommends at least a 30-foot radius. 

This step involves removing potential debris that could fuel a wildfire, including dead trees or shrubs and fallen branches. Residents may also need to thin the vegetation around their homes to clear the area of diseased or dying plants. 

Any firewood should be stored at least 30 feet from structures. 

Reduce flammability of the home

New homes can be built with non-combustible siding like stucco, concrete, stone or brick. Roofing materials like asphalt shingles, metal sheets, tile, concrete and slate shingles are optimal for fire safety. One of the most dangerous building materials is a wood shake roof, which should be treated with a fire retardant or avoided altogether.

Residents can also invest in materials and technologies to prevent flames spreading to their homes. Place non-flammable ground cover, like polypropylene, around structures to serve as a sort of protective moat. Installing a sprinkler system in the yard creates an at-home fire suppression method. 

Have a wildfire action plan

In the event a fire does approach one’s home, residents should be ready to react and evacuate. An action plan should include the following: a list of phone numbers to contact for help, alerts or information — such as Routt County Emergency Management — several evacuation routes out of the home, a safe place to retreat and the location of emergency supply kits.

Those kits should have a three-day supply of food and water (one gallon per person, per day), a first-aid kit, flashlight, extra car keys and cash, important family documents, a map with evacuation routes and personal electronic devices and chargers. 

In certain cases, residents may receive a federal tax credit of up to $2,500 for costs associated with fire mitigation projects. Visit taxcolorado.com for more information about the tax credit.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Steamboat and Routt County make the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.