What’s the exit strategy? How Routt County and its residents plan for wildfires, possible evacuations
Living south of Stagecoach Reservoir in the Eagle’s Watch subdivision, Howard Bashinski was among numerous local residents who were alarmed this summer by the Muddy Slide Fire burning several miles south of their homes. The glow of the fire and flare-ups were unnerving.
“Quite a few of my neighbors got the chain saw out and started cutting back brush,” said Bashinski, a 10-year resident. “It really put the fear of God into quite a few people. Many people think about (wildfire) but that it’s not going to happen to us.”
Bashinski, who works remotely as a dissertation adviser in psychology for Grand Canyon University, followed advice of wildland firefighters surveying his property and added 100 feet of water hose at each of four outdoor water spigots. He had his “go-bag” with essentials packed.
Although Eagle’s Watch homeowners never had to evacuate, a group of neighbors now are working together to strengthen communications and focus on evacuation preparation for the future. Bashinski and neighbor Jennifer Button are helping to form a Fire Mitigation Committee and will be discussing concerns with the Stagecoach Property Owner’s Association on Thursday.
“We feel like we just lucked out by the Muddy Slide Fire. It was so scary,” said Button, who has lived in the neighborhood since 2004.
Although some neighbors had already worked on fire mitigation efforts around their homes, Button’s family also took the advice of surveying firefighters and cut down and removed 20 dead trees at the edge of their property that had been on their to-do list. They packed up 10 containers of supplies, got their camper trailer ready and made plans for their large animals. Button called second-home owner neighbors to get permission to shut down heating systems and then shut off propane at the tanks if the fire should turn north.
Emergency evacuations of mountain communities such as Grand Lake last year during the East Troublesome Fire and currently South Lake Tahoe during the Caldor Fire has locals thinking about what to do if similar situations hit home.
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 cellphone numbers to receive emergency alerts
Bashinski believes emergency management preparations for Routt County should include more specific preplanning and communication with individual neighborhoods as well as practice evacuation sessions.
Routt County Emergency Operations Director David “Mo” DeMorat said the county completed an update of the Routt County Hazard Mitigation Plan in December 2020. As part of the 412-page updated document, the plan includes a map of wildfire hazard areas in Routt County that ranks potential hazards in pockets, including no hazard dark green, low hazard light green, moderate hazard yellow and high hazard orange. Only a few small pockets of land are shaded in dark green, and many spots and the majority of the eastern edge of Routt County show orange.
Routt County also has a Community Wildfire Protection Plan, completed in September 2010. DeMorat is awaiting final approval this summer for a $60,000 Federal Emergency Management Agency grant to help update the local plan. Part of the update will include opportunities for public input and participation.
The emergency operations director continues to emphasize all Routt County residents should register all of their phone numbers in the county’s Emergency Alert Program, also commonly known as reverse 911. No local cellphones are included in the emergency alert system RouttCountyAlerts.com unless personally entered by residents. So far only 22% of the county has signed up for the system, DeMorat said, noting 50% is a minimal preferred level of participation.
“It’s not where I would like it to be,” he said, noting disappointment that more people were not signing up for Routt County Alerts where specific assistance needs for older or disabled individuals can be listed.
DeMorat said Routt County does have limited access to the system that sends out AMBER Alerts, but that system is not as helpful or targeted because it does not know the address for the phone numbers and cannot be used for pre-evacuation orders.
Emergency operations director for almost five years and former FEMA section chief, DeMorat encourages neighborhood leaders and HOA groups to reach out to their representative fire district for assistance with developing emergency evacuation plans. For example, DeMorat and Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue Chief Chuck Cerasoli will be educating at the Strawberry Park Group neighborhood association annual meeting on Sept. 25.
Strawberry Park Group President Ben Beall Sr. said the Middle Fork Fire in 2020 and Morgan Creek Fire this year north of the area prompted the presentation that will feature topics ranging from family emergency preparedness to home hardening property mitigation.
“It’s really important for people to be aware of the resources for assistance and the things you can do on your own property and for your neighborhood,” Beall said. “It’s just really important because of how dry it is; everyone knows what could happen.”
Neighborhoods can work to become a Firewise USA Community, which neighborhoods in the region have done such as Shadow Mountain Ranch in Granby and Gorewood in Kremmling.
Bashinski agreed that an increase in wildfire danger is a “new normal, and we need to be making plans.”
“We see the increase in the frequency of fires and changes in the climate, and we need to consider (wildfire) a matter of not if, but when, and be really ready,” Bashinski said.
Emergency evacuation checklists can vary and are available online, but preparing in advance for evacuation helps families have enough time to leave before danger arrives.
In general, fire officials say keep these six P’s ready in case immediate evacuation is required:
• People and pets.
• Papers, phone numbers and important documents.
• Prescriptions and eyeglasses.
• Pictures and irreplaceable memorabilia.
• Personal computer hard drive and disks.
• Plastic such as credit cards, ATM cards and cash.
This list of evacuation preparation tips assumes families have already prepared the surroundings of their homes to be wildfire ready:
• Identify at least two ways out of your neighborhood and a safe place to go.
• Mark potential evacuation routes clearly on a map and practice with your family and pets.
• Create an emergency communication plan with family members with contact numbers for places your family can go and an out-of-town contact who can keep track of various family members if they get separated.
• Build a to-go kit including multiple-day supplies of necessary medications, first aid supplies, plenty of water, food, pet food, change of clothes, spare chargers and portable radio with batteries.
• Organize and combine important documents in one place that can be grab-and-go portable.
• Fill your vehicle with gas in advance, or if you do not have a vehicle, plan how to leave if needed. Decide with family, friends or local emergency officials to see what resources may be available.
• Have a plan in place for outdoor animals or livestock.
• Ensure your family knows where gas, electric and water main shut-off controls are located and how to safely shut them down in an emergency.
• Have working, current fire extinguishers on hand and train your family how to use them.
• Unplug electrical equipment such as televisions and small appliances. Leave freezers and refrigerators plugged in.
• Leave a note telling others when you left and where you are going. Close windows before leaving.
• Wear sturdy shoes and clothing that provides protection such as long pants, long-sleeved shirts and hat.
To reach Suzie Romig, call 970-871-4205 or email sromig@SteamboatPilot.com.
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Routt County parents Bryan and Karen Bomberg are open about the cause of death of their adult son in November because they hope other parents will not have to experience that grief.