‘It could easily happen to us’
Local fire educators encourage homeowner groups to organize, educate before spring
Local wildfire and forest health educator Carolina Manriquez knows a firestorm racing through a rural neighborhood bordered by dry open spaces, similar to what happened during the Marshall Fire in Boulder County could have easily happened in Routt County this past November.
When the winter wildfire started in Boulder County on an extremely windy Dec. 30, many feelings were racing through Manriquez’s mind, but her primary thoughts were: “This should not be happening this time of year. But it is happening, and it can happen in other places. Climate change is creating these catastrophic events (that are) way outside of what everyone is imaging or expecting.”
Oak Creek Fire Protection District Chief Brady Glauthier responded to a statewide surge call for voluntary help and dispatched a brush truck and two firefighters to help battle the Marshall Fire. The local crew of Lt. Garrett Pohlman and Wildland Firefighter Caleb Hakes worked a 13-hour overnight shift during the intense hours of the Marshall Fire.
Glauthier, who has worked in firefighting since 1989, said November was an intense time of concern for local fire departments.
“Every day I was praying that we didn’t have a major fire. Our county was ripe for having a catastrophic event,” the chief said. “In late fall, that four weeks prior to snow coming, it was tinderbox here. All it would have taken is a strong windy day and somebody careless with any type of fire, and the same thing would have happened here. It could easily happen to us. ”
“If there are enough buildings and enough vegetation connecting all the buildings, and you get a strong enough wind, this could happen anywhere in Routt County,” he said.
“Whether it is an HOA or geographically based grouping of homes, people need to start learning about defending their home against fire and what you can do to mitigate or increase your chance of your house surviving.” — Fire Chief Brady Glauthier, Oak Creek Fire Protection District
Both Manriquez and Glauthier encourage local HOA groups and geographically connected neighbors to reach out to local resources such as the Routt County Wildfire Mitigation Council, via the website RouttWildfire.org, or local fire districts to invite fire preparedness speakers to neighborhood meetings this winter or early spring. Snow should not stop neighborhood groups and landowners from planning ahead, experts say, including organizing and communicating with neighbors, researching available fire mitigation grants and booking a fire mitigation crew, which can have long wait times.
To prepare for the year, the Wildfire Mitigation Council is ramping up its organizational capacity by interviewing this month for a part-time director. The position is initially funded for two years through a combination of grants and foundation donations. The director should be in place by late February to help the community hit the ground running for this year’s wildfire season, Manriquez said.
A forester with the Colorado State Forest Service, Manriquez encourages local groups to start preparing now to apply for state and other grants as soon as April, such as for the CSFS Forest Restoration and Wildlife Risk Mitigation Program.
With the dangers of local wildfires, Glauthier said his department hopes to hire 14 additional wildland firefighters to start this spring. The district has grown from a volunteer department, to having seven full-time staff by November 2020, to adding a seven-member wildland division in spring 2021. Glauthier is hiring to triple the size of the wildland crew that responds to fires and performs paid fire mitigation work.
Manriquez knows fire education can no longer stop during the winters because wildfire is the number one natural hazard facing Routt County due to many years of serious drought conditions.
“From now on, we will never have a break from this work of building awareness, building readiness and improving our forest health,” Manriquez said. “There is a lot that homeowners can do. Even right now with snow on the ground, you can at least inform yourself and line up work for spring and summer.”
One Routt County subdivision moving forward with creating a formal fire preparedness group is the Stagecoach Property Owners Association. Group vice president Chris Simao helped to establish the SPOA Wildfire Mitigation Committee in November. The group will focus on grants for more fire mitigation work and formal neighborhood evacuation signage. The group is educating homeowners about creating defensible space around homes and signing up all phone numbers for Routt County Alerts, also known as reverse 911.
Experts say severe wildfires are likely in the region and across Colorado as more homes and buildings are constructed in or near the wildland-urban interface, or WUI, without proper defensive space or utilizing firewise construction methods. Glauthier said subdivisions and HOA groups also can also work to become a Firewise USA Community through the National Fire Protection Association.
“Even though it is costly for this mitigation work, it’s more costly to replace or repair homes and infrastructure,” the chief said.
Helpful resources for families, neighborhoods and communities to learn more about wildfire emergency preparedness:
Ready.gov – tips for family-level emergency preparedness
WildlandFireRSG.org – Ready, Set, Go! and other resources
ReadyForWildfire.org – information about Plan, Know, Act
NFPA.org – Learn how neighborhoods can become a Firewise USA Community through the National Fire Protection Association
RouttCountyAlerts.com – residents are asked to enter all cell phone numbers to receive emergency alerts
To reach Suzie Romig, call 970-871-4205 or email sromig@SteamboatPilot.com.
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