By Bill Trimarco
Special to The SUN
As we all are trying to be healthy and adjust to life during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is easy for life’s other issues to take a back seat in our attention theater.
This is pretty normal during stressful times. It does not change a lot of inevitable events, however. The sun still rises and sets each day. The days are getting longer again. The birds are bringing their songs back to fill the morning. Green is beginning to show through the brown veil of last year’s grasses. That means that mud season will soon be upon us.
Close on the heels of mud season is our inevitable wildfire season. I know it is hard to imagine this right now, but southwestern Colorado is still in moderate to severe drought conditions. Once things start to dry out, we will start to see wildfires again.
There is no way of predicting how many fires we will have or whether or not one will directly impact our community, but we do have a responsibility to ourselves, our families and our neighbors to make preparations for the inevitable. Please don’t assume that it can’t happen here just because it has not happened recently. Wildfire is a serious threat to almost every home in our county. Ignoring that fact will never make it go away. Understanding what the threat is can help us prepare for it.
Before Europeans began to explore and settle the Pagosa area, there were many small lightning caused fires every year. These frequent fires cleared the forests of underbrush and small trees, leaving stately ponderosa behind. With thick bark and high branches, they would thrive as the low-level fires cleaned out their competition for the scant moisture in this semi-arid landscape.
The ponderosa forests back then usually carried 25 to 60 trees per acre, big giants with 3-foot diameter trunks and park-like spaces between them. After those were clear-cut by early loggers, things grew back. There was a major difference, though. We started suppressing every fire that we could and we were really good at doing that. Without fire to clear the forest, crowded ponderosa sprouts grew into stunted, small-diameter forests with 200 or more trees per acre. Gambel oak kept growing underneath the tree canopy, never being burned back. White fir began to grow beneath the larger trees. All of this unchecked growth has created fuels that lead from the ground like a ladder up to touch the tree canopy. That is one of the reasons that the fires which for millennia served to clear the forest of underbrush have now become huge mega-fires. And, by the way, most of our local towns and subdivisions have been built in the middle of this environment, often with no planning for the inevitability of wildfire. On average, the ponderosa forests in this area experienced a beneficial, small wildfire every seven to 10 years. Most of our forests have not seen a significant wildfire for over 100 years. That is a lot of time for unchecked growth of potential fuel.
The pinon and juniper landscape has different characteristics, but is highly flammable and also has not seen its natural burning cycles.
A lot of our residents here feel very safe because their homes are nowhere near the forest. Unfortunately, that may not make a difference. Most of the homes lost to wildfire are never directly touched by the flames. No, you did not misread that. Most of the structure loss is caused by the blizzard of embers that blow ahead of the fire, starting spot fires outside of the area that is burning. Those embers can travel over a mile.
During the West Fork Complex Fire in 2013, embers blew farther than 2 miles across the Continental Divide and ignited the Rio Grande National Forest, forcing the town of South Fork to evacuate. All it takes is one ember landing on some kindling and you have a new fire start. Usually, you will see hundreds of embers swirling ahead of the fire. If those embers can enter your house or find some kindling on or near your house, there is a good chance that your house will catch fire, too.
Spring is clean-up time for a lot of us. This is a great time to take steps to safeguard your house, also. Some basic steps can make a big difference:
• Clean the leaves and pine needles off of the roof.
• Clean the eaves troughs.
• Make sure all attic and soffit vents have 1/8-inch metal screening.
• Chimneys need spark arrestors (they keep birds out of your woodstove, too).
• Repair any holes or gaps in the siding.
• Crawl space vents need 1/8-inch metal screening.
• Rake up leaves and needles within 10 feet of the structure.
• Remove all combustibles on, under or near wooden decks.
• Install metal screening under the deck to keep duff and critters out.
• Maintain decks and stairs. Dried-out wood is more flammable than oil stained or painted wood.
• Use noncombustible fencing within 5 feet of the house. (If you cannot do that, then clear the combustibles from either side of the fence for its entire length.)
• Move firewood piles at least 30 feet away from structures.
• Remove any combustible plants within 10 feet of the house.
• Within 30 feet of the house, mow grasses to a 6-inch height or less.
• Ornamental junipers and spruce are highly flammable.
Those are some good spring fire cleanup tips. If you want to learn what else you can do, especially with the vegetation within 100 feet of your home, check with Wildfire Adapted Partnership at 385-8909. Sign up for its E-News at wildfireadapted.org to get information on free site assessments and the popular chipper rental rebate program.