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Tips ensure fire safety

The cabins at Wilderness Ranch, nestled in the woods north of Craig, are cozy and private. But firefighters say that in their current state, most of the properties are nearly impossible to defend from wildfires.

Dale Skidmore is the fire management officer at the Bureau of Land Management’s Little Snake Field Office. He studied Wilderness Ranch’s landscape and cabins in preparation for a multi-agency exercise Friday in which officials worked through the logistics of fighting a wildfire in the area.

He said he saw large propane tanks placed in stands of oak brush, cabins on stilts with construction materials and vegetation beneath them. He noticed fire fuels growing close enough to touch the cabins and stacks of firewood piled against the wooden structures.

“Those are the ones we’d say are indefensible,” said Cliff Hutton, assistant fire management officer for the Northwest Colorado Interagency Fire office.

Not only are the cabins unsafe for the owners and occupants, but the properties are unsafe for firefighters, Skidmore said.

Lynn Barclay and Terry Wattles work together to help residents like those at Wilderness Ranch make their properties more defensible.

Barclay is a mitigation and education specialist who works for the BLM. Wattles is the district forester for the Colorado State Forest Service.

Barclay said it is common for property owners to resist the advice at first because they don’t want to cut trees or otherwise change the environment.

They built cabins in the wilderness and they want to keep it that way.

“People imagine you’re talking about moving everything out and clear cutting,” Barclay said.

But Wattles and Barclay say the owners who lend an ear will have safer properties that have higher real estate values after the changes.

Wattles said he’s seen whole neighborhoods jump on the bandwagon after one property owner made the changes. When people see before-and-after photos, they’ll often chose the aesthetics of the latter set, Wattles said.

To make a property defensible, Wattles recommends starting by looking at the first 15 feet in a radius around the cabin.

“In that first 15 feet, we don’t want much growing there but grass and flowers,” Wattles said. “Avoid low-growing juniper bushes.”

Pea gravel and crushed rock are excellent options for the crucial inner radius, Wattles said. Wood-chip walkways are basically kindling that leads the fire to the house. Shake roofs are kindling as well. Asphalt shingles are better, and metal roofs are the best.

From the 15-foot radius to about 100 feet from the cabin, owners should thin the vegetation, remove standing dead trees and make sure the crowns of trees are at least ten feet apart. The distance between the crowns is the distance between the longest branches of adjacent trees, not the distance between the trunks, Wattles said.

Firewood shouldn’t be stacked near the house in the summer. Pine needles need to be removed from the roof.

Barclay said spring is a good time for people to consider defensible space because many owners are already cleaning up their properties and getting them ready for summer.

The changes may sound expensive, and Wattles said they can be. Grants are available to offset the costs in many cases. Wattles has helped people get up to $1,200 from the government to pay for half the cost of making their properties defensible. Wattles thinks that if people at Wilderness Ranch join together, they may qualify for a lot of grant money to help the whole group make the necessary changes to their properties.

Jeremy Browning can be reached at 824-7031 or jbrowning@craigdailypress.com