Absent a fire, Routt County’s largest wildland fire team works to get ahead of next blaze | SteamboatToday.com

Absent a fire, Routt County’s largest wildland fire team works to get ahead of next blaze

Oak Creek project prioritizes exit routs in Stagecoach area after Muddy Slide Fire

Oak Creek Fire Protection District wildland firefighter Sage Chernin breaks down the top of the tree before it will go through a wood chipper, on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022. Chernin, who is in her first year with Oak Creek, said she was encouraged to get into firefighting by firefighters that frequented a brewery she used to work at.
Dylan Anderson/Steamboat Pilot & Today

In the early hours of last year’s Muddy Slide Fire, fire officials were watching multiple aircraft make drops over crowning trees from Routt County Road 16.

Unsure of which direction the fire could spread and knowing there were 158 homes within five miles of the fire, Routt County’s Office of Emergency Management issued pre-evacuation orders for the Green Ridge and South Stagecoach areas.

But instead of burning north toward subdivisions with narrow winding gravel roads that often have just one way out, the fire stayed south and residents were told they could stand down. The fire eventually claimed an unoccupied grouping of trailers, but no full-time residences.

A year later, the Oak Creek Fire Protection District, which includes homes around the Stagecoach area, has 17 wildland firefighters — the largest of any agency in the region. The district now has more than a half-dozen wildland firefighting vehicles, each available to respond to calls in district and throughout the Yampa Valley.

“Good news is, we haven’t had to use them,” said Oak Creek Fire Chief Brady Glauthier.

After record-breaking megafires in 2020, last year wasn’t as bad as some officials predicted. This year, a strong push of monsoonal rain has kept much of the fire risk at bay through the summer.  Absent a large fire right now, Oak Creek firefighters are working to try to keep that risk lower into the future.

Oak Creek’s wildland firefighters — most either in their first or second season — have been working on a slew of mitigation projects this summer that hope to protect the homes and the residents in Stagecoach.

Oak Creek wildland firefighter Jeremy Stib checks his cut as he saws through a dead aspen tree that could block the road and block evacuation routes if it fell, on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022.
Dylan Anderson/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Last week, crews were focused on many of those winding gravel roads that connect the various homes built in what has become known as the wildland-urban interface. More specifically, they were looking for trees that could fall over in the event of a fire and block what may be some residents only path to safety.

“Even if everything is on fire, if things aren’t falling across the road you can still get out,” Glauthier said.

Glauthier said one of the main lessons that came out of the Muddy Slide Fire was that neighborhoods in the Stagecoach area needed evacuation plans.

Oak Creek firefighters cut down an aspen tree on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022, that could fall over an important exit route in a fire.
Dylan Anderson/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Since the fire, the district has developed a catalog of homes in Stagecoach, taking down enough information so they know what to expect if they are called to a fire.

A focus for the Stagecoach Property Owners Association was roads in and out. Glauthier said one of the first projects the district is working on with the association is to manage these potentially problematic trees.

The first pair of trees to go down on Wednesday, Aug. 3, were in the Morningside neighborhood.

Wildland firefighters Jeremy Stib, left, and Caleb Hakes talk about how best to approach taking down the next tree on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022
Dylan Anderson/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Oak Creek Wildland Coordinator Rob Rydberg calls these trees a snag. This means they are dead and likely have a weakened root system that makes them susceptible to falling in the high winds that can be created by an intense, fast-moving fire — the kind of fire that could trigger evacuations.

Some fires can get strong enough where they create their own weather, said Rydberg, who spent a decade fighting fires on a hot shot crew for the Bureau of Land Management before joining Oak Creek last year. One fire he was on in 2018 even had a tornado develop.

“I’ve seen it all,” he said.

Firefighter Jeremy Stib watches as an aspen tree he just cut falls into the woods, on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022
Dylan Anderson/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Firefighter Jeremy Stib, who grew up cutting down trees in Wisconsin, inspected the tree and chose which direction to drop it in while others blocked the road. Once it was on the ground, firefighters Caleb Hakes, in his second season, and Sage Chernin, in her first, swept in to break the tree down and get the trunk off the road.

“What we’re hoping for is as we kick this off, we will start doing more roads and then we can actually start getting into homeowners sites and common areas,” Glauthier said. “This is just the start.”

This work isn’t cheap though. Glauthier estimates it cost about $250 an hour for a crew to be out cutting down potential danger trees. That’s still a lot cheaper than fighting a fire though. A firefighting helicopter alone can cost $15,000 to $20,000 an hour he said — at least 60 times more than his crew.

Wildland firefighter Jeremy Stib stands over the trunk of an aspen tree he just cut down as part of a mitigation project the Oak Creek Fire Protection District is working on in the Stagecoach area, on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022
Dylan Anderson/Steamboat Pilot & Today

He hopes the investment in this project by the Stagecoach Property Owners Association can serve as a proof of concept when targeting larger federal fire mitigation grants. While homeowner groups investing in their own safety is an important step, Glauthier said these grants will be key to tackle the decades worth of projects he estimates are in Oak Creek fire district.

If they are able to get those funds, Glauthier said they still need to be strategic and ensure they get the “best bang for their buck.” In heavily wooded areas like Stagecoach, this means clearing area around homes in an attempt to divert any fire around it.

“People have decided they want to live in the woods,” Glauthier said. “If you’re going to live in the woods, you got to do something about fire. Moving into the woods, there’s a responsibility, and it’s everybody’s responsibility.”

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