As Steamboat Springs and the Yampa Valley anticipate this year’s wildfire season, the city has launched an effort to reduce property damage from the flames.
Fire chief Chuck Cerasoli told the City Council last week that a grant provided to the Routt County Wildfire Mitigation Council will be used to help homeowners learn the importance of taking steps to keep fire-spreading cinders from falling on their homes.
“As we’ve seen over the years — recent years, anyway — wildfires are increasingly unpredictable,” said Cerasoli. “The biggest concern, and what we saw over in Grand Lake and in other areas, is a fast-moving wildfire that creates these ember storms. They can really land anywhere.”
Several studies conducted in recent years confirm Cerasoli’s assertion. For example, an October 2020 paper found that the severity of wildfires has steadily grown since 1985.
The grant, which was awarded by the Colorado State Forest Service, will allow education about some simple ways to lower the risk of damage to structures from any wildfires that hit the Steamboat Springs area.
For example, homeowners can replace roofing material with non-combustible components, screen vent, soffit, and eave openings, clean out leaves and debris from beneath decks, and eliminate flammable items from a home’s closest curtilage.
“You are trying to create that shell on the outside that would be resistant to the embers and prevent an ember getting into your house,” said Cerasoli.
Cerasoli explained that the Hazard Ignition Zone Assessments funded by the grant would focus first on neighborhoods closest to Emerald Mountain, especially Brooklyn and Fairview.
“The concern is that a fire starts on Emerald,” noted Cerasoli. “Even on the backside of Emerald, because of its aspect to town and the prevailing winds, the embers would blow into town and potentially land in some of those neighborhoods.”
But downtown is also a concern. Many residential and commercial structures there are constructed of wood.
“They didn’t necessarily have wildfire in mind,” Cerasoli said, referring to the builders of those older buildings.
In addition, there are numerous nearby large trees in the downtown area. Cerasoli told City Council that, while not all trees need to be removed, sometimes property owners are unaware of the fire-spreading risks that woods rooted close to a structure can create.
“Nobody loves to hear that they should cut down this tree or that tree,” Cerasoli said. “We try to start with honesty and say what we would do.”
Residents should not delude themselves into thinking downtown, or any other part of the city, is safe from wildfire.
“I think the feeling is that downtown is insulated and that it’s safe,” said Cerasoli, whose attendance at an April conference “dispelled” that view. “Everywhere else, it gets worse.”
That reality informs another component of the Hazard Ignition Zone Assessment program: recruiting and training community residents who can teach others about the wildfire protection principles, which are based on the Firewise program developed by the National Fire Protection Association.
“This has been done successfully in many other communities in the state, so we’re not inventing the wheel here,” said Josh Hankes, executive director of the Routt County Wildfire Mitigation Council.
Hankes said the council’s goal is to have one “ambassador” for every 30-40 homes in the area.
“We’re hoping this year to get the first round of ambassadors oriented and trained, see how they do, and then be ready next summer to roll into those communities,” Hankes said. “Reaching people is tricky. Somebody has to have that appetite for it at first.”
Cerasoli emphasized that the fire department itself is unlikely to ever have the capacity to do all necessary public education.
“Part of that would be the local fire district, who will come out and do an assessment for maybe one or two of the properties,” Cerasoli said. “It’s trying to find those people who say, ‘look, this isn’t rocket science, it really isn’t.’”
Firewise, Hankes said, is “a great tool for anybody who really digs in on the wildfire problem. You can do meaningful action and it takes time.”
In addition to property owner education, the city has acquired equipment useful both for mitigation of wildfire risk and fighting the blazes. Deputy city manager Tom Leeson told the City Council on Tuesday that the fire department has acquired a chipper truck. And the city also now has a Type 3 wildland-urban interface fire engine.
“This engine is a little more suited to get out to those homes, those properties, that are outside of town,” Cerasoli said. “It’s four-wheel drive so it’s easier to access back roads, country roads.”
The chipper truck will soon be put to use on Emerald Mountain, where the fire department will selectively cut trees to reduce fuel load there.
The goal, Cerasoli told the City Council, is to “create a little bit of a slowdown if we do get a fire on Emerald and it’s working its way toward town.”
To accomplish the goal, mosaic-style cuts will occur.
“We’re not talking about clear-cutting,” Cerasoli emphasized.
Included in the Emerald Mountain work will be an effort to protect the radio towers from fire.
A second wildland firefighter is expected to join the fire department this summer, though Cerasoli said that person has not yet been hired. While confident about his department’s prospect of successfully recruiting the employee, the chief noted that it is not easy.
“Between the cost of living here and the cost to find a place to stay, and their will to take on that work, it’s a bit of a challenge,” Cerasoli said.
If a wildfire strikes Steamboat Springs this year, the city likely can call on other jurisdictions and agencies for help in fighting them. Cerasoli said that cooperation among local governments, the state and federal agencies is ingrained.
“We have a lot of mutual-aid agreements for assistance, so we can call for help from all around the state,” Cerasoli said.
And the city also can potentially rely on the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s helicopter, staged at Hayden, and the state’s aerial surveillance fleet.