Skittish owners clearing fuels from mountain homes
Fruita farmer Ned Tompkins hadn’t owned what he calls his “hobby home” at the base of the Grand Mesa for long when he decided he should undertake a project there that has provided him both physical exercise and peace of mind.
Tompkins has been hard at work clearing defensible space around the home not far from Colorado Highway 65 above Mesa, thinning out vegetation in order to reduce the danger from wildfire.
“When things started getting really dry this year, we realized we really need to do something to reduce the fire hazard around the cabin,” Tompkins said.
He’s far from alone. Officials are reporting an upswing in interest among homeowners in doing defensible space work thanks to this year’s severe drought and wildfires, including ones in the Fort Collins and Colorado Springs areas that destroyed hundreds of homes.
Kelly Rogers, district forester in Grand Junction for the Colorado State Forest Service, said his office is getting a lot of calls from homeowners seeking its advice and financial assistance with projects to better protect them from wildfires.
“There’s a lot of people worried about it right now and they probably should be,” he said.
The city of Aspen recently sent 1,700 letters offering free defensible space consultations with residents in high-risk areas. As of Tuesday, 128 had responded, which will result in more than twice the number of assessments that were done in a similar program in 2002, city spokeswoman Mitzi Rapkin said.
The city is expediting tree removal permits for defensible space work and issuing them for free. It also is chipping trimmings from trees and bushes for free and hauling the chips away if homeowners don’t want them.
While interest in defensible space work is picking up, it hasn’t to the degree that Ken Tacker, owner of Ken’s Tree Service in the Carbondale area, said he would have anticipated. He said he doesn’t think residents in the Roaring Fork Valley are as attuned to the concept as people in places like the Granby area, where he’s done a lot of work removing beetle-killed trees adjacent to people’s homes.
Ron Biggers, deputy fire marshal in Glenwood Springs, expressed frustration a few weeks ago about the general lack of interest among residents there in doing such work. That, despite the history of major wildfires in the Glenwood area, including one on Storm King Mountain that killed 14 firefighters in 1994 and the 2002 Coal Seam Fire, which destroyed about 30 homes.
“People kind of hope it’s never going to happen to them,” Biggers said.
Lisa Mason, outreach forester for the Colorado State Forest Service, said such apathy can be a challenge.
“In reality, if you’re living in the wildland-urban interface it can (happen to you) and it’s better to take precautions and be safe,” she said.
The continuing wildfires and the enacting of restrictions on things such as campfires apparently has whittled away some of that apathy just in recent weeks. Biggers said this week he’s seen interest in defensible space balloon quite a bit as people have realized that the danger exists not just on the hillsides any more.
“It’s right in town,” he said.
Residents in one Glenwood neighborhood recently got a scare when a fire, reportedly started by illegal fireworks, raced up from the banks of the Roaring Fork River toward their homes before being extinguished.
Part of the challenge in promoting defensible space work entails explaining what it does and doesn’t involve.
“Nobody wants to live in a clear-cut. And you don’t have to make it totally devoid of vegetation,” Rogers said.
In general terms, the work consists of things like mowing grass and other ground vegetation and removing or pruning back trees and bushes close to homes, while doing further thinning work farther away.
Pruning low branches can help keep fires from getting into the crowns of trees on a property, and removing trees and bushes in a fashion where separate clusters of them remain are among the approaches for slowing down or preventing the spread of fire while maintaining some vegetation on a property.
Rogers said he sympathizes with people who say they moved from the city to live in a natural environment.
“Unfortunately, the natural environment they find is really fire-prone,” he said.
Homeowners have to decide how much vegetation removal they’re comfortable with, weighing fire risk against their desire for a more vegetated landscape, he said.
Removing unhealthy and insect-infested growth can benefit remaining vegetation by reducing competition for water and nutrients, he said.
Tompkins said another benefit of clearing vegetation is it becomes easier to spot wildlife on a property.
“It’s interesting because I think some people think the aesthetics are ruined by doing clearing. I think if you do it right you actually enhance the aesthetics to some extent,” he said.
He thinks anyone with a home in the area of his cabin needs to be thinking about fire and doing defensible space work.
“It’s really a volatile situation where you keep your fingers crossed,” he said.
Tompkins took advantage of a grant program through the Forest Service in which qualifying projects benefit from a 50-50 cost share for the first $2,400 of work. That means up to a $1,200 reimbursement to the homeowner, who can even charge for his or her own hourly labor.
Through 2013, the state also is allowing qualifying homeowners who do defensible space work to subtract up to $2,500 of that cost from their federal taxable income, which is used to determine state income tax liability. The subtraction applies to half of the cost incurred for the work, and can be claimed only by residents living in areas with community wildfire protection plans.
State Department of Revenue spokeswoman Ro Silva said only about 500 people have claimed the subtraction since the program began in the 2009 tax year.
“It has not been used a lot up until now but I suspect that it may be in light of the incidents we’ve had this year,” she said.
She hasn’t heard any talk of legislative efforts to extend the tax benefit beyond 2013.
Defensible space isn’t meant simply to protect homes. It can give firefighters space to safely deploy near homes to defend them. It also can mean reducing vegetation on access roads to homes so firefighters aren’t endangering themselves going up them. Biggers said during the Coal Seam Fire, Glenwood Springs firefighters were prevented from heading up a road up Mitchell Creek, where some homes ultimately were lost, because of the fear of trees burning, falling, and trapping them up there.
Likewise, officials say, home-owners need to think about means for better protecting homes themselves from igniting, even where they are surrounded by adequate defensible space. That’s because of the danger from windblown embers. Avoiding the use of wood shingles and decks on homes, cleaning debris from gutters, keeping woodpiles away from homes and removing cushions from lawn chairs near homes are some of the ways to of reducing the risks to homes.