Fire chiefs urge public to take precautions
Fire officials from Aspen to Carbondale are bracing themselves for a potentially dangerous wildfire season and are urging the public to take precautions that could save their lives and property.
Aspen City Council and Pitkin County commissioners were briefed on the situation Tuesday by fire officials from Aspen, Snowmass Village, Basalt and Carbondale who are part of what’s called the Incident Management Team (IMT), which has been organized to manage this year’s wildfire season.
The season has come at least a month early and is the worst since the last drought year of 2002, when wildfire danger was extremely high. Scott Thompson, Basalt & Rural Fire Protection District chief, characterized the situation as being in a “critical phase” and the lack of fuel moisture at “dangerous levels.”
The dry conditions can be blamed on the mild winter, early spring and rapid thawing that did not allow forest plants to take on moisture. As a result, there is plenty of dry fuel in the forests for wildfires to happen quickly, especially with high winds.
A burn ban remains in effect for all state and private lands within Pitkin County. However, that’s not the case in Eagle and Garfield counties, which has Commissioner George Newman concerned, he said.
“Fire has no boundaries,” he said, asking the team how they can convince those jurisdictions to institute similar bans to protect the entire Roaring Fork Valley.
Thompson responded by saying it’s been a challenge to get everyone on board and convince them that burn bans should be contiguous in the valley. In Garfield County, the decision to not institute a ban was made by the sheriff’s office. In Eagle, authorities were pressured by ranchers to lift some restrictions.
Aspen Fire Marshal Ed Van Walraven urged homeowners to take precautions to protect their property, such as thinning or clearing shrub, brush and other dry material at least 30 feet around their structures to create an irrigated greenbelt. Other options are to landscape properties with fire-resistant materials.
He also encouraged local governments evaluate subdivisions and homes where dry materials can be removed, and assist property owners by picking up and disposing of the brush like the city of Aspen did 10 years ago during the drought.
Assistant City Manager Barry Crook told the council that he will in the near future bring a plan for approval that asks for funding to hire a consultant to do such an evaluation and remove brush around area homes.
Pitkin County Commissioner Rachel Richards asked that the county government be brought in on the plan so it can coordinate and possibly use the same consultant and contractor to do similar work in areas outside of the city limits.
The Pitkin County burn ban prohibits open fire pits, fireworks and smoking outdoors. However, an exemption allows limited agricultural burning to take place. The burning of ditches and fields is a tool ranchers use for the survival of their land for cattle raising, noted Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District Chief Ron Leach. He added that ranchers in the area have been cooperative in notifying fire districts ahead of time before they burn.
Officials urged the public to have a 72-hour kit ready in case they must evacuate, as well as have two exit routes in place and even back their cars into their driveways and garages for a fast getaway.
Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland said he hopes community members will talk to their neighbors about the danger and how to take precautions, particularly second homeowners who might not be aware of the situation from their primary residences elsewhere.
The Pitkin County Communications Center plans to conduct a test in the upcoming weeks of its reverse 911 system to identify weaknesses. Community members also can rely on the Pitkin County Alert system by signing up for electronic messaging.
Thompson urged elected leaders to pass more stringent building codes to protect homes from fires, as well as laws that address roads and subdivisions so firefighters have better defensible space to work with.
“I challenge both boards to make progress on this,” he said. He added that it’s imperative not only for the safety of the community but also for firefighters who risk their lives by putting themselves in harm’s way.
The burn ban in Pitkin County is expected to continue through the spring and summer months. Cooking on gas grills or permanent charcoal grills is allowed, but makeshift fire pits are prohibited. Further details on the fire ban and burning restrictions can be found at www.pitkinemergency.com  , or the emergency preparedness hotline at 429-1800.