Despite recent snow, high fire danger persists in the San Luis Valley – by Jan Wondra
While Chaffee and Fremont counties have been (temporarily) released from fire restrictions, the San Luis Valley has not. The entire San Luis Valley is under fire restrictions. The Saguache County Emergency Management Office is urging residents to prepare for wildfires.
“We could very well be heading into the worst fire season in our state’s history. Do everything you can now to prepare because if you wait for a fire to approach, it’s too late,” said Bobby Woelz, director of the Saguache County Office of Emergency Management.
Colorado’s three National Weather Service offices issued 62 red flag warnings in April – the most since record-keeping began in 2006. Snow levels were well below average, with the San Luis Valley recording less half of its normal levels, according to the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Center.
According to the National Integrated Drought Information System, the drought is expected to persist for much of the summer. Models from the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center also suggest the coming months will be warmer and much drier than normal across Colorado. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, significant fire potential above normal is expected to continue from June through September.
According to Woelz, these are unprecedented fire conditions. This persistent windy and dry weather has greatly heightened fire concerns. “The risk of a catastrophic wildfire has never been greater,” Woelz said.
Forecasters and emergency authorities are urging people living in wildfire-prone areas to pay close attention to emergency alerts and pack a ‘go-bag’ with personal items, including medicine and important documents. More than anything else, avoid any activity that could start a fire.
Build a kit, make a plan and be informed
The wildfires have spread quickly, and in some cases people have just hours – and in other cases just minutes – to grab their belongings and evacuate.
According to Woelz, the first step in preparing for a wildfire is to develop a plan that includes the “Ps of Evacuation”:
People: Develop a family communication plan and an evacuation plan. Your family may not be together when disaster strikes. Know how you will contact and reconnect if you are separated. Know – and practice – two ways to get out of your neighborhood. Establish a family meeting place that is familiar and easy to find. If you have children, take a tour of their room. “Ask them to make a list of what they would take if they had to leave quickly. Encourage children to pack their own “to-go bags” with goods that are valuable to them as well,” Woelz said.
Pets: Woelz says animals are often left out of family emergency plans. This is especially important for people with large animals and livestock, as the evacuation process can be complicated. “Practice evacuating with your pets. Just like you, your pets should also have an emergency kit,” Woelz said.
Orders: Have them packed up and ready to go. Include medications, medical equipment, batteries or power cords, eyeglasses and hearing aids.
Personal needs: Such as clothes, food, water, first aid kit, money, phones and chargers. Consider the specific needs of your household and include items for people with disabilities and others with access and/or functional needs, such as the elderly, children, and people with limited English proficiency.
Paperwork: Make copies of important documents (hard and/or electronic copies). It can be difficult to obtain new copies of your documentation after it is lost.
Priceless Items: Including photos, irreplaceable souvenirs and other valuables.
Create defensive space
Take steps to increase the likelihood that your home will survive a wildfire. “Around here, it’s not about if a wildfire will affect your home and property, it’s about when,” Woelz said.
“We are fighting the fires of a new era, made more intense by climate change. Firefighters cannot be expected to put out wildfires in these weather conditions. Woelz said. “I liken it to trying to fight a hurricane. We don’t have “hurricane fighters” to go out and stop the hurricanes, we get everyone out of the way and then clean up afterwards. A forest fire, under these circumstances, will be no different.
Firefighters will always do their best to protect homes, Woelz says, but ultimately it’s your responsibility to protect your property and investments from wildfires. Firefighters may not be present at your home during a forest fire. They are trained to protect structures only when the situation is safe for them. According to Woelz, residents should prepare homes and property to withstand a wildfire without the intervention of firefighters.
“This includes taking measures such as removing dead vegetation and plants and pruning dead branches,” Woelz said. He also recommended keeping firewood away from the house, as well as any flammable material. “Homeowners should always keep gutters and other outdoor areas free of debris, as embers can ignite dry, dead material,” Woelz said.
The challenge for homeowners is to learn how to make their home safer from wildfires. The Saguache County Firewise Team provides FREE wildfire risk assessments and conducts risk mitigation projects for Saguache County residents.
For a free fire risk assessment, call 719-480-9764.
Register for San Luis Valley Emergency Alerts.
Receiving timely information about emergencies can make all the difference in knowing when to act and how to be safe. “If we can’t reach you, we can’t alert you,” Woelz said.
Start preparing now
The most important tip, according to Woelz, is to start preparing as soon as possible. “Those who lose everything in wildfires often regret not having backed up their documents or digitized their photos or having a better plan in place for family reunification,” he said.
“Don’t let that be you. The time to prepare for disaster is always now,” Woelz said.
To learn more about mitigating fires, making a plan, or putting together an emergency kit, visit the Saguache County Office of Emergency Management website at: https://saguachecounty.colorado.gov/OEM