Capacity limits what local officials can do to mitigate Steamboat's high wildfire risk
Mitigation work planned for Emerald Mountain hopes to add fire breaks to slow a fire and give nearby neighborhoods a "fighting chance."
When officials from the Colorado State Forest Service presented a fuels analysis for Steamboat Springs locally in April, it showed that pretty much every part of the city is at risk.
“All of Steamboat was very red,” said Steamboat Springs Fire Chief Chuck Cerasoli.
Without a significant local fire last summer, Cerasoli said his crew of two wildland firefighters was able to do a lot of mitigation work and start doing some hazard ignition zone assessments locally. While a good start, there is likely at least a decade’s worth of that kind of work ahead. Potentially even longer based on the current capacity for wildfire mitigation, education and outreach locally.
The city has budgeted for two wildland firefighters again this summer, but one of those positions is still vacant, as local housing costs have made hiring difficult, Cerasoli said. Still, the Steamboat Springs Fire Protection District now has an engine specifically designed to fight fires in the wildland-urban interface, or WUI, and received a grant to purchase additional equipment to support mitigation work.
The grant also will allow for mitigation work on Emerald Mountain over the next three years, with Cerasoli saying the goal of the work would be to create areas where if a fire were to start on the mountain, firefighters would have a more of a “fighting chance.”
“What we’re really going to focus on is what we call hardening Blackmer and Prayer Flag roads,” Cerasoli said. “What we want to do is be able to mitigate some fuels, reduce some fuels on either side of Blackmer all the way up. … We’re not talking about clear-cutting 20 feet off the center line. What we try to do is mosaic the fuels a little bit so that if a vire was moving through the fuels when it hit this area, it would slow down and then potentially the road could be a good anchor point for us to try to stop the fire.”
The project also includes adding fire breaks near the Brooklyn and Fairview neighborhoods and doing more mitigation efforts around critical infrastructure like radio towers used by first responders that are at the top of Emerald.
To do this, Cerasoli said the city has purchased an industrial-grade woodchipper to break down fuels that are removed from these areas.
But these types of projects are just a small part of what could be done to make the city more resilient to wildfires, and Cerasoli said community involvement will be important to do that.
Josh Hankes, executive director of the Routt County Wildfire Mitigation Council, said he is seeing an “avalanche” of interest from homeowners looking to better protect their homes and that he loses sleep at night contemplating how they will keep up with requests. Hankes said he is working with 10 neighborhoods to get a Firewise designation, which is a program from the National Fire Protection Association.
“It’s a great program, but it’s limited in its capabilities and it’s really just a starting line,” Hankes said “They have awareness of the problem and they’re thinking about it and they have a plan that spans out the next few years with some goals and some targets.”
The wildfire council is working on an ambassador program to help build capacity. Hankes said his goal would be to have one ambassador for every 30 or 40 homes in Routt County, with these people getting initial training on how to assess fire risk and then using that knowledge to help their neighbors.
Cerasoli said he would hope that in 10 years that every property in Steamboat would have a risk assessment done, which would give homeowners a list of suggestions for how they can better protect their homes. This doesn’t mean cutting down all trees either, rather it is more of a layered approach.
Still, the current capacity for fire mitigation work cannot meet the demand they are seeing and Cerasoli said they often have to tell people calling that they simply do not have the personnel to help more. He said he hopes to grow his team of wildland firefighters in the coming years to help increase capacity, but for now, they are working with what they have.
“If we don’t say no we lose out credibility and what we don’t want to do is lose credibility and stop having people looking to us for advice,” Cerasoli said. “There’s a lot of thinking that have come around — these risk assessments, fuel reduction programs, public education campaigns, detection cameras. There’s just so much out there that’s come around that we could be undertaking that we just don’t have the ability to do.”
Top Photo Caption: Steamboat Springs is hoping to grow its current team of wildland firefighters, but that team is currently struggling to hire due to high housing costs. (City of Steamboat Springs/Courtesy)