Co-Existing with Fire Risk

Summit County communities are coming together to mitigate wildfire threats.

With a glance around her, Hannah Ohlson says it’s clear to see why people want to live in Summit County. She just doesn’t want them to forget about another, sometimes overlooked, aspect of life in this idyllic Colorado mountain community: Fire.

“People live here because it’s so stunningly beautiful,” says Ohlson, a wildfire specialist with Summit County Fire & EMS. “As far as our natural ecosystem goes, it’s unique. We have mature conifer stands. We have beautiful Aspen stands. We have incredible wildflowers in the steep mountainous country. It’s really a special place, and that’s why I choose to live here. The flip side of that is that our ecosystem is fire adapted.”

“Fire adapted,” means the mountain ecosystem can actually benefit from periodic fires that clear out old and overgrown vegetation, recycle nutrients back into the soil and prevent larger, more catastrophic events.  For decades, however, forest management practices across the country suppressed fires, which unintentionally led to increased major wildfire risk.

“The lodge pole pines want to have fire in them at certain intervals, and the same with spruce, fir and aspens as well,” Ohlson said. “And because we’ve suppressed wildfires in our ecosystems for over a hundred years now, what we see is fuel loading that makes our wildfires more intense when they do come through.”

Sparking a Community-Wide Partnership

In Summit County, managing wildfire risk is a year-round effort for Ohlson and her firefighting colleagues, but it’s one they can’t do alone.  That’s why, starting nearly a decade ago, the county launched a collaborative effort to involve a broad range of community leaders, government agencies, homeowners, experts and other concerned individuals in systematically planning for and minimizing wildfire risk.  The result has been an innovative partnership known as the Summit County Wildfire Council.

Communities who come together and take the initiative to prepare for a wildfire are those who know each other and will support each other when something happens,” explained Dan Schroder, who plays a key role in coordinating the Wildfire Council as the local Colorado State University Extension Director.  “When you get to know your neighbors and you understand that you’re all involved in the same natural disaster potential, it’s something that you can work on together.”

‘Set up Like Cogs’

Schroder describes Summit County’s wildfire protection efforts as interlocking cogs of various sizes, all working together to promote community safety.  At the heart of that effort is the Summit County Community Wildfire Protection Plan, which sets out objectives, actions, policies, grant programs and community education efforts designed to reduce the risk and impact of wildfire across the region.

As an example of one of the “smaller cogs” in the plan, Schroder points to a chipping program that helps property owners reduce fire risk at their own homes or structures.

“The Chipping Program is an opportunity for individual landowners to stand on their own and participate in a wildfire fuel reduction program,” Schroder said.  “In the summer, we invite everyone to put trees, branches, really flammable vegetation from their landscape curbside. And then the county has contracted with a group that will come through and chip your material on site and take it away, so everyone gets to participate in the wildfire conversation.”

At the largest end of the scale, Schroder said the Wildfire Protection Plan calls for significant tree clearing projects designed to create protective fire breaks in heavily forested or populated regions.  These projects, which can understandably spark community concern, call for close coordination and involvement across a host of agencies, experts and interested community members.  In those cases, the Wildfire Council’s education and engagement efforts play a valuable role in helping people understand what’s taking place and why.

“Probably one of our biggest challenges here in Summit County is the public education piece,” Matt Benedict, Wildfire Division Captain for Breckenridge Fire & Rescue, said.  “Our population turns over regularly. It can turn over week to week and sometimes day to day. But with new homeowners moving into the area, public education becomes super important because the first thing that they tell us is they moved here for the trees. And we all moved here at one point for the trees, including myself. But it’s important to understand that nature and these forests cannot exist in a vacuum, and they cannot exist statically. Through education we’ve helped people understand the importance of what’s going on.”

Creating Your Own ‘Defensible Space’

A key focus of the Wildfire Council’s education efforts is helping property owners understand how best to protect their own homes and structures from damage.

The issue with wildfire isn’t the flaming front in most cases that burns communities down,” Schroder said.  “In fact, it’s embers that fly from quite a distance away. They hit your house and siding, they’ll drop into the area surrounding your house, and that can be the quiet way a structure burns down.”

To combat this risk, wildfire experts urge property owners to create a “defensible space” around structures to reduce fire hazards. In this space, natural and manmade fuels are treated, cleared or reduced to slow the spread of wildfire.  Learn more about this and other tips for protecting your home or property on the Colorado Forest Service website.

“Something We Take Pride In”

Schroder clearly is a proud champion of Summit County’s wildfire mitigation approach, and not just because of the innovative programs and policies it has helped create, but also for the relationships and shared understanding it has built across the community.

“Our Wildfire Council is something we take pride in,” Schroder said.  “It’s about the fact that we all are speaking the same language, that we come to the same table, and we work together on this issue that we all care about.”

For their part, Council members also praised Schroder and CSU’s Extension team for helping serve as resources for the community.  “That relationship with CSU, it’s super important for us,” Benedict said.  “Dan runs our Council and CSU Extension keeps it all organized for us.  Really, I don’t know that we could do it without Dan and CSU at this point.”

Most importantly, for everyone involved in the effort, the shared focus remains on preserving the wellbeing of people, property and ecosystems in one of the world’s most beautiful natural settings.

We’ve got a good start and a good head of steam,” Ohlson said.  “I hear again and again from people who moved to the mountains for their idyllic mountain experience that they didn’t know that they were moving to such a vulnerable, fire adapted community. And yes, we want to get them up to speed quickly and convey some urgency, because every summer is a summer in which we could have a fire that disturbs our community.”