May, 2013 Residents urged to prepare for fire threat

Summit Daily News Coverage, May 17, 2013

National trends indicate that wildfires are burning hotter and longer, and that wildfire seasons are lasting longer. Local fire experts are warning Summit County residents not to assume their homes are protected from the devastating effects of a wildfire.

We are living in a new era of megafires, according a nationally televised report presented by the Forest Health Task Force at a meeting for homeowners on Wednesday.

What would have been considered an extreme fire 10 to 15 years ago is now commonplace, according to the CNN report. Part of the blame, the report said, lies with the early policy of the Forest Service, which was to douse every fire that erupted. Now, the national forests are full of fuel for wildfire.

Summit County has been proactive in thinning forests, and clearing the interface between homes and wildlands, local experts said. This should prevent fires from burning so intensely, said Dan Shroder, a natural resources director at Colorado State University. However, it doesn't necessarily mean a wildfire can't or won't get out of control.

"It's a matter of knowing where you are and what hazards may be there," Schroder said.

Summit County was one on the first communities to create a wildfire plan. Today, it's used to prepare citizens and protect infrastructure from threats of a wildfire.

"We look at it as a road map and identify things that need to be done," Shroder said. "Every year we identify more to do."

While fire representatives applaud Summit County for its proactive and collaborative approach to forest health, they said more needs to be done on the federal level to support local wildfire-suppression efforts.

Federal funding to fight forest fires operates under a piecemeal approach, according to County Commissioner Dan Gibbs, who spoke at Wednesday's meeting.

"You can't manage a huge fire apparatus nationally if Congress can't step up and pass a budget," he said. "They are just passing on these continuing resolutions. I think it is irresponsible and it's sickening, in my opinion, that they can't have a long-term funding approach to help fund at least the fire components of the budget."

Some towns and counties in Colorado aren't helping the situation, Gibbs said.

"Believe it or not, not only counties but towns are approving developments in areas that do not overlap with a fire-protection district," he said. "There are thousands of Coloradoans that live in this no-mans land and I think that needs to stop. Elected officials need to step up and figure out where they are approving developments to make sure they are overlapping with fire protection districts."

Citizens need to cover their own tracks by making sure they have adequate insurance coverage in the event of a catastrophic wildfire, local experts said. After a wildfire, when it's time to rebuild, residents must comply with current building codes and replacement costs can be far higher than one might think.

"If you under-insure your property you can actually be penalized for that," Forest Health Task Force member Howard Hallman said.

Fire representatives recommend Summit County residents talk with their insurance agents and read the fine print to find out exactly what is, and is not, covered under their current plans.

"It may be an advantage to have a higher deductible, as tough as that may be, in order to be covered in the case of a catastrophic fire," Hallman said.