Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Preparing yourself for wildfire

This year we remember the Missionary Ridge Complex ten years after it hit our community. To this day, the 72,964 acres is the second largest Colorado wildfire on record. The fire was dubbed the "Worst terrain fire in the country" in 2002. The Complex, made of the Missionary Ridge Fire and the Valley Fire, destroyed 56 homes and 27 outbuildings after actively burning for 37 days. A study performed after the fire put a total cost of the fire at $152,000,000. Of that cost determined by ASTM, $90,276,323 was attributed to fighting the fire. The cleanup, reconstruction and rehab, which the community is still working on, cost almost $54,000,000 as of 2005.

We learned a lot during and after the fire, mostly about what to expect during a disaster. La Plata County doesn't get too many disasters and this one was a biggie. Every year we have the possibility of getting get a drought, a flood, a fire, a big snow. We can expect some sort of community wide incident every year; very few have the span of effect of a major fire. During a major wildfire we get: federal management teams, an army of volunteers, huge volumes of donated goods, national media, damaged natural resources, tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent, strung out emergency workers, evacuations, shelters, a fire city inside our city... the list goes on. It doesn't stop right afterwards: burned homes, scared public, dangerous forest, mudslides, tenuous water supplies, decades of forest recovery, roads and infrastructure to rebuild...

One of the biggest lessons we learned was that we can't do it all. County government is limited in money, people power and resources. We have limitations. We ask that you do all you can to prepare yourself, your family and your property for emergency situations that may impact you.
It has been shown that years ago before people interfered in the natural process many areas of SW Colorado burned every 10 to 15 years. The fires were generally more mild and kept balance in the forest. Southwest forests were "Fire adapted". For the last hundred years people have suppressed wildfire. During that time the grazing and logging, aside from other negative impacts, helped to keep the forest fuels more balanced than they would have otherwise with the policy on fire suppression. Now the logging is gone, the cattle are gone, the ladder fuels are abundant, trees are smaller and closer together, duff is deeper than the grass; in general the forests are stressed. Fire is supposed to be naturally regenerative. Today the fires are big, intense and catastrophic.

In the case of a wildfire you may have days or minutes to prepare. The more prepared you are before a fire, the less worried you will be when fire comes. 

  • Prepare yourself
  • Prepare your family
  • Prepare your car
  • Prepare your animals
  • Prepare your home
  • Prepare your neighborhood
  • Spread the word

Prepare yourself:

If you live in the alpine, sub-alpine, forest, mesa, "PJ" country, high desert, mountain valley, or anywhere else in La Plata County: you live with wildfire. Our weather changes every year and every day. Normal has a lot of latitude SW Colorado. Fire fuels change as often as our weather. Needless to say, you should be ready for wildfire in any year. 
Ready Colorado has some great tools and information:
  • Make sure your insurance is up to date and know what is covered and you have what the agent needs to help you recover (pictures? serial numbers?)
  • Protect your important documents in a safe deposit, fire safe or fire box
  • Back up your hard drives and keep copies away from home 
  • Create a personal recovery plan for records of passwords, account numbers and other important information
  • Make a plan: Where will I go? What do I take? How do I contact ____ ? How will ____ contact me? 
  • If you can't get out on your own, do your neighbors know to check on you? Fire and law enforcement will be busy. Your neighbors are getting out just like you, . 
  • Make sure you know how you will you get emergency notification and evacuation orders. Sign up your cell, internet, IP, e-mail and text Here, Find out more about other methods Here
  • Make a kit. Having a "go kit" in case you have to evacuate with food, meds, clothes, important phone numbers (in case you phone is lost) and spending cash will make showing up at a shelter much more pleasant for you.
  • If you rent your home, be sure to have documentation of you living there so you can be allowed in when restrictions begin to lift (lease, bills, mail, etc) if your drivers license doesn't have your current address listed. 
  • Mentally be prepared Once you think about what to do it makes doing it and dealing with it much easier. 

Prepare your family:

Now that you are ready (since you are reading this, you get to help your family get ready) it is time to turn to everyone around you. 
  • Have an evacuation plan: How to get out of the house, what to take (personal go kits), how to drive out, another way to drive out. 
  • Designate a meeting place if your family spread out already
  • Designate an out of town contact to coordinate and gather information from all of you so you can all meet up again. 
  • Keep phone numbers of family, their school, business, best friend's house or favorite bar handy so you can find them

Prepare your car:

Now that your people are prepared you need transportation
  • Keep your car tidy. Make sure you always have space for you and your loved ones. In the middle of an evacuation isn't the time to take out the laundry and clean up fast food wrappers. 
  • Keep your tank at least half full. Worrying about if you're going to make it while having to drive the long way around the fire to town is not what you want to do. 
  • Keep something to clean your windshield in your car (a rag and water will do). You'd be amazed how well ash sticks to dirty windshields. 
  • Keep some food and water in your car at all times. You may be there a while. 
  • Park facing out. It makes loading quickly easier and saves time when you need it most. 
  • Keep a map of your area in your car. You might need to find a back route out. 

Prepare your animals:

Hopefully you will have time to take your animals. If you do you need to have a plan. 
  • Make sure your animals have a go kit just like you (food, water, spare leash, bowls, meds, ID)
  • Dogs and cats are usually easy to move. If you have a horse you need a way to move it other than your Subaru. Work with friends and neighbors to team up on transporting big animals. Talk to friends ahead of time about having a stall or pasture away from your neighborhood to go to. 
  • Be aware that shelters may or may not have the ability to handle animals. Even if they do, it will be very limited. 
  • If you have to leave your livestock be sure they have ample food spread over several areas. Make sure they have food and water to last about a week. Don't depend on on-demand watering. If power goes out on your well or other water supply is damaged you may not be able to help. 

Prepare your home:

As a fire develops fire crewsFire crews will assess a subdivision or area and determine what homes they have the best chance to defend. There may only be one truck in a subdivision and they can't save everything. If your home looks like they may get trapped, or they can't turn around on your road, or you have done nothing to prepare for wildfire yourself: your home will fall to the bottom of the list. Wildfire starts homes on fire in three major ways: 1) creeping on the ground through grass or duff which lights the sides of your home or under a deck on fire, 2) direct flames from burning fuels against or near your home, 3) Heat exposure and burning embers - heat from burning around your home can break windows or ignite fuels like gasoline and embers can be blown into vents, into gutters or through open windows. 
There is a wealth of information regarding preparing your home for wildfire. Firewise is one of the best resources along with the Colorado State Forest Service. 
There are several things you can do to give your home a chance. 
  • If you are buying or building a home, think about how a fire crew could access and protect your home. Ask a fire fighter if you have question
  • You should adapt your landscape to defend against wildfire by thinning fuels, clearing fuels against your home, keep your gutters and roof clear. 
  • If you store gas cans firewood outside, store the material away from your house 
  • When you leave
    • Close your windows and lock your doors
    • Leave a note that tells fire and police that you left

Spread the word:

Make sure your neighbors sign up for La Plata County's Emergency Alert Connect to get emergency notifications on their cell phones.
A fire adapted community is much better than one fire adapted home. A neighborhood working together is much safer than an "every man for himself" attitude. Work together with your neighbors to build resilience into your entire neighborhood. Learn from each other and build off each others strengths. Get involved with Firewise, be an ambassador, develop a community wildfire protection plan, get grants to help your property and others.


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