As smoke billowed from Lory State Park and wafted over nearby Fort Collins March 15, residents weren’t the only ones noticeably shaken.
Fire protection districts across Larimer County watched the events unfold and were vividly reminded of 2012’s devastating fire season, most notably the 87,284-acre High Park Fire. After a year that was marred by tragedy and loss, districts are taking steps and making changes to get a jump on what could be another lengthy and destructive fire season.
At the top of everyone’s priority list is interagency communication, something each district has worked to improve in the wake of large-scale fire events in recent years.
“The things that have happened since 2002 really highlighted the fact that no one department can do it all by itself,” said Gary Green, Wellington Fire Protection District Chief. He stressed that being aware of what each neighboring district has in terms of resources and manpower before flames erupt can go a long way toward saving property. “Rather than forging those relationships in the heat of the moment, maybe we can get ahead of this.”
Green’s crews take planning a step further by using a diorama to visualize potential fire scenarios and plan accordingly. The sand table – which looks like an elevated child’s sand box – allows officials to create different terrain, environments and even wind patterns to plan where to place resources. And after a fire is contained on the ground, crews use the table to debrief and better plan for the next blaze.
“It really brings a 3D-aspect to wildfire training,” he said. “It’s the next best thing to actually being out on the fire ground itself.”
Beyond an understanding of mutual aid and better planning, districts are using grant funds to help reduce fuel loads and ensure each resident knows exactly what defines a defensible space.
Glacier View Fire Department, encompassing about 56 miles, was awarded funding to do 100 acres of mitigation on lands within the district and is working to bring on two or three paid firefighters to focus on mitigation efforts and join the existing 18 volunteers.
Crews will clear areas of brush and ensure residents have a defensible space for about $292 per acre. The typical cost is about $1,100. Residents can get more information about the program through a series of to-be-determined spring meetings and the district’s website, www.glacierviewfiredept.com.
The district also purchased an all-terrain vehicle with a mounted fire package, allowing crews to bring water and supplies to remote areas in the early stages of fire events, District Chief Greg Niswender said.
In his area with a growing population, a fire can erupt near a subdivision and quickly become destructive, heightening a need for quick response and emergency planning.
“Neighbors need to know each other and have a neighborhood plan on these bigger events,” Niswender said. “It doesn’t have to be a big fire to be a big threat.”
The Poudre Canyon Fire Protection District recently collected a $40,000 grant from the Denver Foundation and has been working to improve water resources for firefighting – something Chief Carl Solley said suffered in 2012.
Crews were sometimes unable to use the Poudre River because water was thick with ash, mud and soot. That’s why this year they installed two 5,000-gallon dry wells – one at Smith Bridge Road and another near Mishawaka Amphitheater. The wells are essentially holes in the ground that leach water and naturally filter it, providing an added resource for fire suppression.
The district also purchased a chipper to aid in mitigation efforts. Crews normally do slash-pile burns in the winter months to clear piles of brush, but a dry winter limited the number of days burns were possible.
“We’re going to be really active in helping homeowners with mitigation and telling them what they need to do,” Solley said.
Individual efforts and communication, everyone agreed, would be critical moving into another season where crews are sometimes rendered powerless when staring down fast-moving flames.
“We can try to direct it, but they get so large, there’s not enough water or resources to get in and do some work,” Solley said. “We’ve seen it time and time again. If people don’t mitigate around their homes, there’s nothing we can do to save them.”