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Preparing for potentially active Routt County wildfire season

Suzie Romig
For Steamboat Pilot * Today
Carter Miller, lead firefighter from the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, examines fire weather conditions northeast of Elk Park last fall, with the Middle Fork Fire visible in the background. (Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — If the more than 20,500-acre Middle Fork Fire in northern Routt County late last year was not a wake-up call for residents to understand the seriousness of local wildlife risk, this year’s combination of high threats from drought and abundant beetle-killed trees should confirm the dangers.

“Our forests are facing many challenges now because of longer fire seasons, high fuel loads, severe drought and beetles,” said Carolina Manriquez, local forester with the Colorado State Forest Service. “It’s not a matter of if, but when (for the next fire). We’ve been lucky in Routt County; the Middle Fork Fire stayed mostly in wilderness areas because of our prevalent winds.”

Members of the Routt County Wildfire Mitigation Council — which includes 38 fire professionals, agency representatives and local residents — are pushing for strong attendance during four weekly, virtual evenings of educational presentations to help everyone learn how to do their part to prevent wildfires. The 2021 Routt County Wildfire Conference titled “Learning from 2020 to Prepare for Wildfire Season” is an effort to promote public awareness and understanding of wildfire risk to foster community-driven action to reduce risk and the impacts of wildfire in Routt County.



“The more people who get educated about the fire environment, that will be a huge help to our community and our forest,” said Kevin Thompson, a fire management officer based in Yampa for Routt National Forest. “The key is educating people to understand the role they play, the role that fire plays and how we live with it.”

Manriquez said with the patchwork of private, state and federal lands along with no single entity overseeing all wildfire concerns in Routt County, broad community and partner participation for wildfire education and efforts are critical. She said the increase in forest visitors boosted by the COVID-19 pandemic also adds to wildfire risks.



The free conference also will focus on home ignition zones and being prepared as an individual home or land owner, case studies and best practices for HOAs and small communities, and community level preparedness and recovery. The sessions will be 5 to 6:15 p.m. April 29 and May, 6, 13 and 20. Registration is available at RouttWildfire.org.

One of the educators slated for May 20 is Schelly Olson, assistant chief at Grand Fire Protection District No. 1 in Granby, whose own family’s home north of Grand Lake burned down to the concrete for a complete loss during the East Troublesome Fire.

If you go

What: 2021 Routt County Wildfire Conference

When: Four free virtual presentations, 5 p.m. April 29, May 6, 13 and 20

Info: routtwildfire.org

For questions and assistance: info@routtwildfire.org

“It’s crazy. You spend your career working on wildfire preparedness, then it happens to you,” said Olson, chair of the nonprofit Grand County Wildfire Council started in 2013. “It’s the most devasting thing I’ve ever gone through professionally and personally.”

The late season East Troublesome Fire originated Oct.14, 2020, 15 miles northeast of Kremmling and became Colorado’s second largest wildfire at 193,812 acres, burning 366 homes and more than 200 additional structures. The cause is still under investigation.

The Middle Fork Fire started from a lightning strike Sept. 6, 2020, in dry mixed conifer trees about 10 miles north of Steamboat Springs in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area. The fire was not declared contained until Nov. 17, 2020, and controlled until Dec. 15, 2020, Thompson said.

A crew of wildland firefighters from various agencies hikes into the east side of the Middle Fork Fire last fall to perform structure assessments and prepare contingency fire line in the event fire moved toward the Mad Creek Trailhead. (Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service)

Thompson said the current wildfire season in Routt County starts approximately one month earlier and ends one month later than before circa 2000. Rather than July through September for the greatest fire danger worries, the heightened season is now June through October.

The longer fire season stems from a number of factors, Thompson said, ranging from beetle-killed trees allowing in more sunlight to melt snow on the ground to a later monsoon season to climate change, which studies show has warmed Colorado on average 2.5 degrees in the past 50 years. Considering the fire events from 2020, which had an average snowpack and dry summer, 2021 with even less snowpack and another predicted dry summer adds up to continued fire danger.

“When you put all of that together, there is a very high likelihood that we have the potential for another big fire year,” Thompson said.

Forester Manriquez stressed that the council’s tagline “Mitigation starts with you” is the key take-home message. Everyone living in, recreating in or visiting Routt County has a role to play in reducing wildfire risk. She said the highest areas of wildfire risks are in the Fish Creek watershed, northern and southern portions of Routt County and throughout the county’s extensive WUI, or wildland–urban interface, the zone of transition where development meets undeveloped wildland vegetation.

The council’s website at RouttWildfire.org provides a variety of resources. For questions and referrals to fire mitigation experts and funding sources, contact info@routtwildfire.org. For detailed information, the state’s 2020 Report on the Health of Colorado’s Forests is available at bit.ly/2RfzKG9.


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