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Lachelt: Preparing for wildfire, making our community safe

Gwen Lachelt

Spring is officially here in La Plata County, bringing with it longer days, warmer temperatures, gusty winds, early flowers, itchy eyes and preparations for the summer months ahead.

This is a time of renewal and excitement every year, but given the very dry fall and winter that we experienced in Southwest Colorado, it is also a time to remind ourselves that fire season is just around the corner and we need to be prepared as a community for what could be a challenging period.

As of April 1, the snow in the mountain basins that will feed our rivers this spring and summer is just 47 percent of the median amount we receive in our corner of the state – which includes the San Miguel, Animas, Dolores and San Juan river basins.

To put this in closer perspective, today’s snowpack is just 37 percent of what we saw in 2017. This means that soil moisture is low going into the warm, dry, windy days that lie ahead, so the plants and trees that are emerging from their dormancy will likely be stressed and grasses that are normally kept moist from winter snows – and fall rains – are still dry. Further, warm winter temperatures triggered early growth at higher elevations, making these plants susceptible to spring freezes. The combined effect is that we are seeing abundant ground fuels coupled with vulnerable shrubs and trees throughout the region.

As La Plata County’s Director of Emergency Management Butch Knowlton said, “It’s drier than you think, and it’s a different kind of dry this year.”

He is right, and we’ve already seen quite a bit of fire activity this year, including multiple wildfires since April 1. On Sunday and Monday, there were four reported fires on county roads 214, 225A, 302 and 250 – at least two that resulted from controlled burns that did not cooperate. Butch saw one of these firsthand because it began on his property on County Road 250.

Butch’s experience on Easter is a telling one because it shows that even if you do everything right, things can still go wrong. He called central dispatch (385-2900) at 7 a.m. to let Durango Fire Protection District know he planned to burn his ditch that morning. He had sprayed everything down around the burn area ahead of time, burned the ditch and was wrapping up for the day, spraying everything down again. Butch turned his back on one area for about three minutes to spray another site. In that time, “A gust of wind grabbed what little fire had not been put out and moved it into the field,” Butch said. Within seconds, the fire expanded through an area beyond his hose lines and grew to 18 acres.

Butch called 911, and fire crews responded. They were able to get the fire under control relatively quickly and the issue was resolved. Still, it is a lesson for us all: This is a dry year and conditions are extremely volatile.

La Plata County and our Sheriff’s Office are working with the U.S. Forest Service, FireWise of Southwest Colorado, county fire districts, San Juan Basin Public Health, Colorado State Forest Service and local nonprofits to reach out to the community about wildfire risks, mitigation and preparedness so that we are all ready to respond if fire occurs.

We know that weather and precipitation patterns can change quickly but that if conditions remain warm and dry, wildfire risk in Southwest Colorado will be high this spring and summer. It is essential that we all invest in preparing for wildfire to help keep our community safe this fire season. Creating defensible space around your home is critical, and FireWise can help. Visit southwestcoloradofires.org for information on grant and rebate programs to help keep your property safe.

La Plata County also offers emergency notifications via CodeRED: http://bit.ly/CodeRed_signup. Once you sign up for these announcements, you will receive real-time information on your cellphone about all emergencies, including wildfire and information about evacuations, pre-evacuation and other essential emergency information.

While we are all remaining hopeful that April will bring the showers that moisten our soils, quench our trees’ thirst and beckon May flowers, it is important to be prepared for what could be an active fire season if conditions remain as dry and warm as we have seen in recent months.

Take a look at the many preparedness resources available at ready.gov/wildfires and wildlandfirersg.org/Resident.

Learn about health risks associated with fire season, including Red Flag warnings: bit.ly/81301_weather and smoke effects: colorado.gov/airquality/wildfire.aspx.

And most of all, think rain!

Gwen Lachelt is chairwoman of the La Plata County Board of County Commissioners. Reach her at 382-6219.

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