Lisa Kendall and Doug Spainhower have spent years, along with their neighbors, working to make their neighborhood more safe from wildfires.
“The less burnable material that you have, then the more likely your house is to survive a wildfire," said Kendall.
They’ve been clearing the area around their entire neighborhood in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, which has one road in and out and is surrounded by forests, with dead trees, downed trees and debris.
“You have this home, you paid money for it, it only costs a little bit more to do this defensible space work to give these firefighters a chance to be able to defend your home,” she said.
“I’ve been right in the middle of forest fires, so it scares the hell out of me,” Doug Spainhower said.
He grew up in Northern California, another hot spot for wildfires.
“It’s important that everybody is on board because if only half of the residents buy into it, then the other half doesn't, well if their house catches on fire and you’re next door, your house is going to burn down too. There’s no two ways about it,” Spainhower said.
“Recognize it can happen to you,” Kendall said. “Even all this preparation and all this work we’ve done over the years, it’s not a guarantee.”
2020 has been one of the worst wildfire seasons on record in the western U.S., from winery-scorching blazes in Northern California to 100,000 acres burned in 24 hours by the East Troublesome Fire in Colorado, to fires biting at backyards in Southern California. Oregon and Washington have seen a number of fires this season too, among other states. All leveling homes and putting entire neighborhoods at risk.
“As the west has developed and we have seen communities grow that are on the edge of the forest or surrounded by natural wooded areas, we have complicated the problem of wildfire and the threat wildfire poses to people's homes, our communities,” said Steve Lipsher, Community Resource Officer for Summit Fire & EMS. “Mitigation is our way to try to claw back a little bit and protect those areas.”
Mitigation efforts include reminding land owners of defensible space, to clear cuts of trees down in conjunction with the forest service.
“We’re all working towards this idea of a fire resistant, fire adapted community. One that can withstand a fire. We’re not there yet,” Lipsher said. “But I think we have made some truly innovative strides.”
An example lies just north of Downtown Frisco, where Summit Fire & EMS is located. Lipsher said they completed a controversial clear cut around a neighborhood as a precaution, but that cut played a part in saving those homes from the Buffalo Mountain Fire in 2018.
“It was a human-caused fire,” Lipsher said.
The fire burned up to just a football throw from nearby homes.
“When this fire started here, [the clear cut] was the saving grace for this neighborhood,” he said.
Scorched trees are still standing today.
“We’re seeing some unprecedented fire behavior and some really extreme fire behavior that, as a forester and a firefighter, we just haven't really seen in our lifetime managing these forests,” said Ashley Garrison, a Forester with the Colorado State Forest Service. “The effect these wildfires can have on the environment can really have these cascading event when they are these intense, large fires.”
Garrison and Lipsher are just two of the men and women who spend their days working on wildfire mitigation, something Summit County has been focused on for more than a decade.
“It’s been 15 years now since Summit County developed one of the first community wildfire protection plans,” Lipsher explained. “It was one of the first developed in the state and in the country.”
As for making a community fireproof, that may be unachievable.
“Quite frankly I think that will probably be a never ending quest,” he said. “Our existential threat here is wildfire. It's no different if you lived in Kansas with the threat of tornadoes, or if you lived in Miami and it’s the threat of hurricanes.”