Lake Christine Fire proved that actual threat can be greater than assessed threat
BASALT — With wildfires on the minds of many Roaring Fork Valley residents because of last summer’s Lake Christine Fire and the recent calamities in California, there is a tool Colorado residents can use to help assess risks to their areas.
The Colorado State Forest Service has updated an online mapping tool that looks at wildfire risk, burn probability and potential fire intensity. While the interactive map can be used to look at specific properties, the state forest service said the intent is for use on a broader scale, such as communities or watersheds.
The Colorado Wildfire Risk Assessment Portal, also known as CO-WRAP, was developed in 2013 and updated this fall. It uses information gathered in 2017.
On a statewide level, the forest service learned the number of people living in areas at risk to the effects of wildland fire increased by nearly 50 percent from 2012 to 2017. About 2.9 million people now live in Colorado’s wildland-urban interface — where homes are built in or close to natural terrain with flammable vegetation, according to the study. That’s up from 2 million people five years earlier.
Statistics weren’t immediately available for the number of people living in the wildland-urban interface in Pitkin County or the portions of Eagle and Garfield counties in the Roaring Fork Valley. Ryan Lockwood, communications manager for the Colorado State Forest Service, said the agency’s researchers have been inundated in recent days with requests for information and they are facing a backlog.
Basalt-Snowmass Village Fire Chief Scott Thompson said the Lake Christine Fire showed when it exploded on July 3 and 4 that the risk of wildfire is high.
“In the Roaring Fork Valley, we’re all at risk,” he said. “Houses in subdivisions can burn from wildfires.”
For that reason, he had some reservations about the CO-WRAP use as a tool for homeowners. Its strengths are it can show potential for wildfires and fire intensity for a geographic area as well as the vegetation types. The Basalt and Snowmass Village fire departments are using the information when they provide a site-specific assessment of wildfire risk for a property owner, he said. The fire departments also could use the tool to research vegetation types on properties they aren’t familiar with, he said.
However, Thompson said he doesn’t believe CO-WRAP is “super accurate” when looking at wildfire risk at specific properties. Blue Lake subdivision in the El Jebel area, for example, is assessed at a moderate level of wildfire risk by CO-WRAP, he noted. He believes the potential is much greater given the threat that was posed by the Lake Christine Fire.
Based on the information he has been given, he believes there is an under estimation of the risk for parts of the Roaring Fork Valley.
The Aspen Times used CO-Wrap to look the risk at the eastern edge of the El Jebel Mobile Home Park. Two stick-built homes in that location burned in the Lake Christine Fire and the entire mobile home park was threatened the night of July 4. It was saved when regional fire departments used flares to start backfires to burn out fuels before the wind-whipped wildland fire arrived.
Homes on Lava Hi, a street at the edge of the mobile home park and where homes burned, was assessed at “minimal direct wildfire impacts” based on the state forest service’s information collected in 2017. However, CO-WRAP also assessed the Lava Hi area for “fire intensity very high.”
“Very large flames up to 150 feet in length; profuse short-range spotting, frequent long-range spotting; strong fire-induced winds” also are characteristics of that type of terrain, the model said. “Great potential for harm or damage to life and property.”
The mapping appears to miss the mark for properties in the Hill District of Basalt, which were under mandatory evacuation during the Lake Christine Fire. Residences on Ridge Road, for example, were rated at “minimal direct wildfire impacts” even though fire retardant drops are likely all that saved them in July.
CO-WRAP did foresee high and very high fire intensities for Ridge Road neighborhoods.
The state forest service noted in a media statement about CO-WRAP that areas considered in low-risk of wildfire can still have a higher risk than more urban areas.
Eric Lovgren, wildlfire mitigation coordinator for Eagle County, said he believes the trend for a growing number of people living in the wildland-urban interface applies to Eagle County as it does in the state as a whole. There are more people moving to the wildland-urban interface, he said, and the actual interface is growing because of climate change.
The state forest service’s online mapping can be found at http://www.coloradowildfirerisk.com.
Valley residents can get assessments of individual properties and mitigation steps by calling their fire department or, in the Basalt and El Jebel area, by calling Eagle County.