More Coloradans live in wildfire territory than ever
Almost 21,500 acres burned in wildfires this summer in Grand County and though no structures were damaged, a recent report found that more Coloradans than ever live in an area at risk for wildfire.
The Colorado State Forest Service reports that approximately 2.9 million people now live in the state’s wildland-urban interface, or the area where human improvements are built next to or within natural terrain or flammable vegetation.
This is up from only 2 million people who lived in the wildland-urban interface in 2012. The new data was found by updating the Colorado Wildfire Risk Assessment Portal using new housing, population, vegetative fuels, weather and other ancillary data.
Schelly Olson, chairperson on the Grand County Wildfire Council and public information officer for Grand Fire, said more development in forest areas is bound to cause more human-wildfire interactions.
“The fact that the only way to survive wildfire is to adapt and live with it because it’s inevitable,” Olson said. “We have to do as much as we can as towns, counties, communities, (homeowners associations), personal property owners, individuals on our own piece of that pie to create a community that can survive wildfire.”
In an effort to mitigate potential wildfires, county, state and federal agencies have cooperated to manage the land at risk, including by thinning out lodgepole pines that have been damaged by the beetle-kill epidemic and by conducting prescribed burns.
The Colorado State Forest Service and the Kremmling Office of the Bureau of Land Management completed a project to remove beetle-killed trees earlier this week. The U.S. Forest Service conducted slash pile burns last week and conducted prescribed burns in the Blue Ridge area.
“Had we let fire naturally occur in the ecosystem, we would have a nice patchwork of different ages, of different species (of trees), so that’s the goal,” Olson explained.
She said fire departments and emergency agencies can use these prescribed burns as wildfire training exercises for first responders, which helps make sure they can respond effectively.
The fire departments also have mitigation crews who complete projects around the county to help connect efforts from different agencies to create a more resilient landscape.
Aside from the measures county agencies are taking, Olson said personal responsibility plays a big part in wildfire mitigation. In an effort to promote fire safety, the county fire departments offer a free assessment program for residents.
“It’s all recommendations, we can’t force anybody to do anything, but we can give them some safety tips on what to do around their home,” she said.
Grand County residents can also take advantage of a wildfire mitigation cost sharing program, where property owners can submit an application for up to 50% of the cost of a mitigation project, such as tree removal.
Olson also cited the free chipping program the county offers in the summer or the slash pile burn licenses offered in the winter as a way to reduce potential fuel on private property.
To protect structures from fires, Olson said to be sure that there is a non-flammable barrier around the building, such as a gravel or rock perimeter, and to clear any vegetation that comes right up to the building or hangs over roofs or decks.
While taking steps to protect structures and mitigate wildfires is important, Olson said, it’s also important to try and prevent the wildfires we can. According to the National Park Service, almost 85 percent of wildfires are human caused.
This means making sure campfires are completely out and cold, not using burn barrels, being careful with discarding cigarettes and watching for things that may spark, like a chains dragging on asphalt.
However, the best way to prevent human caused wildfires is to be situationally aware.
“I think that people need to be situationally aware of what the weather is like, so if it’s a hot, dry, windy day, please don’t light a fire,” Olson said.
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Members of the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission as well as the public are invited to attend CPW’s second online educational session related to wolf reintroduction efforts 6-8 p.m. Thursday.