Coloradans urged to reduce wildfire risk while staying at home


By Teddy Parker-Renga
Special to The SUN

With fire seasons becoming longer, more intense and more damaging over the last few decades in Colorado, state and federal agencies that manage wildfires and forests are urging residents to join in efforts to reduce wildfire risk, while following stay-at-home and safer-at-home directives.

 Gov. Jared Polis signed a proclamation declaring May as Wildfire Awareness Month, an annual observance to encourage all citizens to better prepare their homes and communities for wildfires. With about half of all Coloradans — about 3 million people — living in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), it’s important for people to take action to reduce the risk wildfire poses to their homes and create more fire-adapted communities.

During an average year, Colorado will see about 4,500 wildfires that burn around 168,000 acres, including several large fires. With the coronavirus creating challenges for firefighters this year, including less flexibility and fewer resources, residents should do what they can now to ease the burden on first responders if a wildfire poses a threat to their community.

Wildfire knows no boundaries; it does not recognize jurisdictional responsibilities. A single wildfire often crosses private, county, state, tribal and federal lands, and threatens communities across all landscapes. 

“The number of people at risk of wildfires in Colorado continues to increase,” said Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control Director Mike Morgan. “Approximately 3 million people live in Colorado’s wildland-urban interface — compared to 2 million people just five years ago. We encourage landowners and communities to become aware of their level of risk and be a part of the solution.”

Practical steps while staying at home

Homeowners living in the WUI can do a number of practical activities to protect their residence from fire while staying home and practicing social distancing. The Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS) recommends the following wildfire preparation activities:

• Rake and remove pine needles and dry leaves 5 feet from the home, as well as under decks, porches, sheds and play structures.

• Remove leaves and needles from roofs and gutters.

• Sweep porches and decks clear of any burnable plant material.

• Move firewood piles at least 30 feet from the house, preferably uphill.

• Transfer items under decks or porches to a storage area.

• Cover any exposed eave or attic vents with 1/8-inch metal mesh screening.

• Ensure home address signs are clearly visible from the street.

• Contact your local office of emergency management to register for emergency notifications and encourage your friends, family and neighbors to do the same.

• Confirm at least one alternate path out of your neighborhood other than the one most commonly used and be prepared for potential evacuation requiring the alternative route.

“Accomplishing these simple tasks will increase the chances your home will survive a wildfire,” said Mike Lester, state forester and director of the CSFS. “These are activities you can do on your own, while you’re stuck at home. Not only will you be preparing yourself, your home and your family for a potential fire, you’ll be giving a leg up to firefighters who may be called to protect your home.”

Prevention when

In early April, Jennifer Eberlien, acting regional forester for the USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Region, announced fire restrictions on national forests and grasslands in Colorado and surrounding states to help prevent human-caused fires, which in turn can help prevent the overtaxing of county and state fire and medical resources. Some Colorado counties have followed suit. While many campgrounds and recreation areas remain closed across the state, people who head into the forest should check fire restrictions and do their part to prevent wildfires.

Fire management agencies are operating under novel constraints due to the coronavirus. That said, wildland fire agencies are incredibly proficient in emergency response and are actively assessing potential risks and developing plans to mitigate those risks as progress in the response to COVID-19 continues. While COVID-19 circumstances are rapidly evolving — and federal guidance continues to adapt with the situation — the wildland fire agencies are prepared for wildland fire activity and will be ready to respond during a COVID-19 outbreak. Still, variable quarantine guidelines will impact resource sharing, interstate travel and other traditional incident management practices in a novel way, making individual land and homeowner wildfire preparedness and prevention all the more important during this fire season.