Who’s who of fire experts share property-saving ideas

Preparation and fire mitigation are the best ways to increase the odds of saving property during wildland fires. That was the conclusion from a panel of area fire experts ranging from law enforcement and fire personnel to Forest Service and FireWise representatives Wednesday night.

A sparse audience of about 20 people met at the Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College to review recent firefighting efforts and determine what actions La Plata County and its residents can take to improve safety and response to wildfires.

Butch Knowlton, director of the La Plata County Office of Emergency Preparedness, spends a lot of time reviewing fire response in other communities to learn valuable lessons he can bring back to Southwest Colorado.

“The study on the Four-Mile Fire in Boulder in 2010 was quite telling,” he said “That fire was so fast, so aggressive, there was only one fire engine and crew for every 23 homes. We used to depend on these guys to show up and take care of it, but they’re now outnumbered.”

People who don’t take steps to protect their property are going to lose, he said.

“We have 15,715 address points in La Plata County,” Knowlton said, “and 12,924 are in high-risk zones. The vast majority in high-risk areas have not done anything.”

Pam Wilson, program director for FireWise Colorado in La Plata County, said it’s better for whole neighborhoods and subdivisions to work together on fire mitigation, and she often can award a mini-grant with funds from the Bureau of Land Management to help get them started. Tax credits also are available.

“If you have done mitigation and your neighbors have done nothing, you may be out of luck,” she said.

When firefighters have to make a call on which houses to save, the mitigation may make the difference.

“It’s like triage,” said Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Dan Bender. “We have to prioritize. Should we work on this house we might be able to save, or those three houses down there we know we can save for sure?”

Basic preparation, such as good insurance, good records on a homeowner’s belongings and thoughtful selection of the items to take during an evacuation are key.

“I thought I had done pretty well,” said Michelle Herringer, whose home burned down in the Missionary Ridge Fire. “But I didn’t take my grandmother’s Christmas ornaments or the clothes my daughter wore home from the hospital after she was born, and I really regret that.”

While possessions matter, saving lives is the most important task in a fire, Knowlton said.

“On the Eastern Slope, people with special needs were being left behind,” he said. “Able-bodied people can drive away or run, the elderly and the physically limited cannot. People need to know their neighbors and be prepared to help those with special needs.”

Craig Dale, who works on fire mitigation and education for San Juan National Forest, said because of long-term suppression efforts by the Forest Service, which were ordered by Congress to protect lives and communities, the natural fire cycles have been disrupted. Combined with two decades of hotter and drier climate, future fires are likely to be larger, faster and more aggressive.

“The correlations are pretty eerie between 2002 and 2012,” he said. “We’re almost dead on with the fire indices such as moisture levels in fuels. We set a new record this year, and 2002 was a record year, too.”

With the recent destructive fires on the Front Range, property insurance rates may increase by as much as 25 percent, Knowlton said.

“Or they may come and say they won’t cover you,” he said. “Insurance companies’ financial risk is based on fire risk. They’ve already told people they’re not going to renew their policies, and I think we’re going to see more of that.”

abutler@durangoherald.com