Colorado saw the worst wildfire season in its history in 2002 with 3,072 wildfires burning over 600,000 acres - the most acreage in the nation following Alaska and Oregon. Three hundred- eighty houses and 624 outbuildings were lost.
Insurance claims reached $79.3 million and firefighting and emergency rehabilitation efforts exceeded $200 million.
About half the wildfires in Colorado are lightning-causedâ€¦the rest have some human connection.
We live in fire ecosystems where fire will occur. Many fire effects are not only beneficial, they are necessary and natural for ecosystem health. Resource managers try to maximize beneficial effects through the use of prescribed fire and fire use (managing ignitions for resource purposes). Wind-driven fires pose the most serious threat to foothill and lower elevation areas (Buffalo Creek and Bear Tracks are examples).
In Colorado, the area where wildlands prone to fire and expanding mountain subdivisions overlap is called the red zone. It is also referred to as the wildland/urban interface. Since fire is common in the red zone, special precautions are necessary for homeowners and land managers.
Individuals living within the wildland/urban interface can take steps to reduce the risk of fire losses. For example, you can create a Safety Zone around your home or business by doing the following:
- Stack firewood at least 100 feet away and uphill from your home.
- Clear combustible material within 20 feet.
- Mow grass regularly.
- Rake leaves, dead limbs and twigs. Clear all flammable vegetation.
- Remove leaves and rubbish from under structures.
- Thin a 15-foot space between tree crowns, and remove limbs within 15 feet of the ground.
- Remove vines from the walls of the home.
- Remove dead branches that extend over the roof.
- Prune tree branches and shrubs within 15 feet of a stovepipe or chimney outlet.
- Ask the power company to clear branches from power lines.
What do I do?
- Be aware of fire risks and take responsibility for your use of fire.
- Be careful with smokes and campfires - only build fires in rings or grates. Use self-contained cookers or chemical stoves.
- Keep hot mufflers and catalytic converters clear of grasses and shrubs. Burn debris with care.
- If you see smoke or a fire, call the county sheriff 's office first. They will notify the correct agencies.
- Think about where you would go to flee a fire, what you would take, how you would get out, and an alternate route out in case the one you're planning on is blocked--it's the same kind of planning you do with your family for escaping a fire in your home.
- Know your personal limitations. Don't put yourself or others at risk.
How can I help? What can my community do?
- Be informed about defensible space and how it can minimize fire danger around your property.
- Be aware of approaches your community may wish to take in adopting fire smart covenants, ordinances, and transportation plans.
- Be a part of volunteer or rural fire department training.
How we fight wildfires - inter-agency cooperation
Wildfires are fought by a diverse group of firefighters and support personnel from more than 20 local, state, and federal agencies. It's the best example of seamless government we know. The goal is to mitigate unwanted fire and provide public safety.
Wildfires are not "put out" in the sense that a house fire is extinguished. Firefighters surround wildfires within defensible boundaries. Fire line (constructed by hand, by bulldozer, and by retardant drops, or extended to existing trails or roads) and natural features (streams, lakes, rock outcrops, ridgelines, and already burned areas) are connected to surround the fire. Once the main fire is surrounded, firefighters mop-up remaining hotspots and the fire line to achieve control over the fire.
Fire behavior/suppression tactics:
Trying to stop a raging wildfire - even with the array of available technological and personnel resources -- is like trying to stop a tornado.
Air tankers don't put wildfires out; they provide temporary fire line and can help cool fuels.
Living in Colorado's Wildland Fire Hazard Areas 10 Steps to efensible Space
- Thin tree and brush cover.
- Dispose of slash and debris left from thinning Remove dead limbs, leaves and other litter.
- Stack firewood away from home.
- Maintain irrigated green belt around the home.
- Mow dry grasses and weeds.
- Prune branches to 10 feet above the ground Trim branches.
- Clean roof and gutters.
- Reduce density of surrounding forest.
- Other improvements include improving driveway access and water supplies, having a fire-resistive roof, enclosing overhanging eaves and decks, spark arrestors on chimneys, etc.
- More and more people are building and buying homes in Colorado's forested/wildland areas. These areas often have poor access for emergency vehicles, little or no fire fighting water supplies, native and wild vegetation, and steep slopes.
It's up to the homeowner to help mitigate against potential loss of life, property, and valuables. As a homeowner in what we call the wildland/urban interface area, you should be aware of wildfire hazards and what to do when a wildfire starts. Defensible space is an area of 30 feet or more around your home that is kept free of features that tend to increase the risk of your home being destroyed.
Develop a Fire Plan
Ask your local fire department for advice. Talk with your neighbors about tools, equipment and other resources you could share in an emergency.
What you'll need....
- Evacuation Plan. Early evacuation is the safest way to avoid injury or death. Timing and other factors can vary so widely that each household needs its own specific plan, including options to cover anything that might happen.
- Escape Routes. Normal and alternate escape routes.
- Safety Zones. Locations of and routes to large areas with little or no vegetation or other fuels where family members can ride out the fire if it's too late to evacuate.
- Communication Plan. Pre-arrange normal and alternate ways to stay in touch with family members, even if phones are out. Family members might "check in" with a friend or relative in another area as soon as they're able.
- Assignments. Who is to do what when in an emergency
Equipment you may need...
- Hoses. Pre-connected to faucets.
- Ladder. Long enough to reach the roof easily.
- Fire Extinguishers. One or more 5-pound multipurpose type, readily available.
- Protective Clothing. For anyone who is unable to evacuate before the fire arrives. This includes a cotton long-sleeved shirt or jacket and trousers, a handkerchief to provide minimum protection for the lungs (avoid inhaling smoke or hot gases!), or leather boots, gloves, a helmet or other head covering and glasses or goggles. Cotton clothing is a "must." Synthetic fabrics can melt onto your skin.
When caught in a wildfire....
If you see a wildfire, call 9-1-1. Don't assume that someone else has already called. Describe the location of the fire, speak slowly and clearly, and answer any questions asked by the dispatcher.
Before the fire approaches your house....
- Evacuate. Evacuate your pets and all family members who are not essential to preparing the home. Anyone with medical or physical limitations and the young and the elderly should be evacuated immediately.
- Wear Protective Clothing.
- Remove Combustibles. Clear items that will burn from around the house, including wood piles, lawn furniture, barbecue grills, tarp coverings, etc. Move them outside of your defensible space.
- Close/Protect Openings. Close outside attic, eaves and basement vents, windows, doors, pet doors, etc. Remove flammable drapes and curtains. Close all shutters, blinds or heavy non-combustible window coverings to reduce radiant heat.
- Close Inside Doors/Open Damper. Close alt doors inside the house to prevent draft. Open the damper on your fireplace, but close the fireplace screen.
- Shut Off Gas. Shut off any natural gas, propane or fuel oil supplies at the source.
- Water. Connect garden hoses. Fill any pools, hot tubs, garbage cans, tubs or other large containers with water.
- Pumps. If you have gas-powered pumps for water, make sure they are fueled and ready.
- Ladder. Place a ladder against the house in clear view.
- Car. Back your car into the driveway and roll up the windows.
- Garage Doors. Disconnect any automatic garage door openers so that doors can still be opened by hand if the power goes out. Close all garage doors.
- Valuables. Place valuable papers, mementos and anything "you can't live without" inside the car in the garage, ready for quick departure. Any pets still with you should also be put in the car.
When you leave, remember....
- Lights. Turn on outside lights and leave a light on in every room to make the house more visible in heavy smoke.
- Don't Lock Up. Leave doors and windows closed but unlocked. It may be necessary for firefighters to gain quick entry into your home to fight fire. The entire area will be isolated and patrolled by sheriff's deputies or police.
If you're in a car....
This is dangerous and should only be done in an emergency, but you can survive the firestorm if you stay in your car. It is much less dangerous than trying to run from a fire on foot.
- Roll up windows and close air vents. Drive slowly with headlights on. Watch for other vehicles and pedestrians. Do not drive through heavy smoke.
- If you have to stop, park away from the heaviest trees and brush. Turn headlights on and ignition off. Roll up windows and close air vents.
- Get on the floor and cover up with a blanket or coat.
- Stay in the vehicle until the main fire passes.
- Stay in the car. Do not run! Engine may stall and not restart. Air currents may rock the car. Some smoke and sparks may enter the vehicle. Temperature inside will increase. Metal gas tanks and containers rarely explode.
If you're trapped in your house....
Stay calm. As the fire front approaches, go inside the house. You can survive inside. The fire will pass before your house burns down.
After the fire passes....
- Check the roof immediately. Put out any roof fires, sparks or embers. Check the attic for hidden burning sparks.
- If you have a fire, get your neighbors to help fight it.
- The water you put into your pool or hot tub and other containers wilt come in handy now. If the power is out, try connecting a hose to the outlet on your water heater.
- For several hours after the fire, maintain a "fire watch." Re-check for smoke and sparks throughout the house.
If you are caught in the open....
- The best temporary shelter is in a sparse fuel area. On a steep mountainside, the back side is safer. Avoid canyons, natural "chimneys" and saddles.
- If a road is nearby, lie face down along the road cut or in the ditch on the uphill side. Cover yourself with anything that will shield you from the fire's heat.
- If hiking in the back country, seek a depression with sparse fuel. Clear fuel away from the area while the fire is approaching and then lie face down in the depression and cover yourself. Stay down until after the fire passes!