Narrow roads bordered by trees. Areas without nearby water storage. More and more homes intermixed with wilderness in neighborhoods with one way in and one way out.
These are the factors that keep fire chiefs up at night thinking about how they’ll save homes and lives in the event of a wildfire.
“If you have to build a 24-foot-wide road instead of a 14-foot-wide road, it costs a lot more money,” said Chief Hal Doughty with the Durango Fire Protection District. “But if we don’t commit to those things, we end up in the same dangerous situation we find ourselves in right now. We haven’t built our access infrastructure to the point where we can safely protect property.”
In one of many efforts to address wildfire hazards, the fire district, city of Durango, La Plata County and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment have partnered on the Wildfire Watershed Protection Fund to do mitigation work, Doughty said.
The fund’s first projects will focus on Durango West II, where brush is conducive to a fast-spreading fire near homes, and areas like the Rafter J subdivision and the Durango Hills area, which have hazardously dense plant life, he said.
In other areas, ingress and egress roads, or the lack of nearby water storage, are the issue.
“If efforts have been made to mitigate and diminish the height and density of fuels so the fire doesn’t have the ability to come roaring in as a crown fire – and we’ve provided good ingress and egress routes – our opportunities to save lives are much better,” Doughty said.
La Plata County residents face a challenging landscape: The entire county has a “moderate” to “very high” wildfire risk. Then areas with a high likelihood of fire overlap with conditions where a fire could burn with high intensity – in areas where buildings and wildland environments intermix.
The city of Durango and La Plata County have teamed up with state and federal agencies on multijurisdictional, large mitigation projects. The Fire Adapted Durango Partnership – made up of the city, its residents and seven other agencies – is mitigating Durango’s borders. Its 38-acre project for 2021 is about 50% complete, said Amy Schwarzbach, the city’s natural resources manager.
Residents can even use an interactive map to check out fire and mitigation conditions for their properties. They can also clear brush away from their homes and have the city take it away for free during the Durango fall cleanup starting Oct. 4, Schwarzbach said.
But more can always be done, fire chiefs say.
“The reality of it is that every single one of the neighborhoods in our communities that is built in interface areas has its own specific profile of hazard danger,” Doughty said. “For every one of those, we have mitigation we can do so that it keeps the fire from having free access to roll into those areas.”
The Durango Fire Protection District covers 325 square miles, including the U.S. Highway 550 corridor from the southern border to the northern border of La Plata County.
Narrow, steep roads are a concern in the Animas Valley north to Purgatory Resort. It can be difficult for emergency service vehicles to navigate those areas even on a warm summer day. Add people rushing to evacuate, or ice and snow on roads, and fire trucks may not be able to safely reach certain buildings, Doughty said.
Then there are communities, such as Durango West II, where buildings mix with wildland environments. There, oak brush and other fast-burning fuels could help a fast-moving fire spread from the subdivision to the wildland area, or vice versa, Doughty said.
From a fuel density standpoint, the Rafter J area southwest of Durango and the Durango Hills communities northeast of the city are his main concerns.
“The concern that I have is the potential for a fast-growing, fast-evolving fire based on the fuel density in those areas,” he said. “A lot of those areas are one way in, and one way out.”
Upper Pine River Fire Protection District in eastern La Plata County has its own areas of concern.
The Upper Pine district, 284 square miles in eastern La Plata and western Archuleta counties, is concerned about entry/exit roads, water supply, overgrown areas and terrain.
“With these two-lane, curvy roads – you’ve got a situation where one car that goes off the road clogs up the whole line, and everyone has potential to be burned over,” said Chief Bruce Evans.
Forest Lakes Metropolitan District, one of the largest subdivisions in the county with about 1,100 residents, has curvy roads and a south-facing slope that gets heated in the sun. The fire district does not have enough resources to protect every home in the community, Evans said.
The pros: The community has a good water supply and is well-organized.
“The people that live up in Forest Lakes are acutely aware of the risks up there,” he said.
Sierra Verde Drive near Lemon Reservoir northeast of Durango is densely forested and has one road in, and one road out.
The north side of Vallecito Reservoir also has a large population with one solid road to get out, he said. There is an alternate exit, but low-clearance vehicles can get stuck and gates can be locked through private land.
“The burn scar from Missionary Ridge (Fire) is starting to heal over, and growth is coming back,” Evans said. “In the next five to 10 years ... the risk is going to be back.”
Residents can see the overall wildfire risk level on their property using an interactive Wildfire Hazards map created by the U.S. Forest Service and its partners. A second resource, the WUI and Mitigation Difficulty map, shows how easy or hard it could be to mitigate.
“The next step one should take is once you know you need to mitigate, you need to contact your local fire department, FireWise, CSFS (Colorado State Forest Service) and see if they will do a property assessment,” said Karola Hanks, DFPD fire marshal.
Fort Lewis Mesa and Los Pinos fire protection districts did not respond with comment.
Even as residents work on their properties, more can be done, fire chiefs say.
Doughty highlighted land-use code provisions that help create wide ingress and egress routes.
“We haven’t built our access infrastructure to the point where we can safely protect the property,” he said.
Evans suggested building codes that prioritize flame-safe materials for decks, windows and roofing. Additional water storage would help, although that’s a difficult challenge in arid Southwest Colorado.
“Mitigation isn’t just pushing the brush back from your house. There’s so many other things that need to happen or could happen,” he said.
The main takeaway: No matter where a person lives, wildfire hazard is part of life in La Plata County, said Shawna Legarza, the county’s emergency management coordinator and former firefighter.
“All of La Plata County is in red. All of it’s at risk. The federal, the state, the tribal governments, the homeowners – everybody has to play a part in being fire ready,” she said. “Fire knows no jurisdictional boundaries and neither should the defensible space and fire mitigation activity in the county. We’re all in it together.”