The cacophony of chainsaws became the soundtrack of the summer when Jean and Michael Blaisdell returned to their home after being evacuated during the Hayman fire in 2002.
That’s when the Blaisdells and other residents in Ridgewood, a subdivision in the forest north of Woodland Park, began to take seriously the threat of wildfires – and the measures that could help save their properties. Now, more than half of the homeowners in the community have taken steps to make their houses more fire safe, from chopping trees to choosing noncombustible building materials, reported The Gazette.
“We built this house in 1982 with the intention of cutting down as few trees as possible. Now all we do is cut down trees,” said Jean Blaisdell, who moved to Ridgewood with Michael after he retired from the Air Force.
Their cabin-style house sits on a slope, tucked among ponderosa pine, Douglas fir and blue spruce – all conifer kindling of choice for wildfires.
The Tarryall Mountains, visible to the west from their second-story deck, are still singed splotchy black from the Hayman fire. A decade after the blaze, flames from the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire danced between a pair of hills southeast of their property.
Hundreds of trees on the Blaisdells’ 27 acres have gotten the ax over the years, leaving a constellation of scattered stumps. The couple has thinned trees within 10 feet of their driveway, a third of a mile in length, and replaced their old roof with fire-resistant, stone-clad steel shingles. They collected their most important paperwork, from birth certificates to insurance packets, in a single file in case they are evacuated and need to leave quickly.
“We really got busy,” Michael Blaisdell said.
But more work must be done, he said.
The couple signed a contract to replace their home’s wood siding with concrete and the wooden window frames with vinyl – upgrades that will cost about as much as was spent building the home.
Officials praise the efforts of homeowners such as the Blaisdells and renew their pleas for all residents, especially those in heavily wooded areas, to make their houses more fire safe.
“Complacency is our worst enemy in this business – the idea that ‘it can’t happen to me,’ for some reason or another. Yes, it can,” said Dave Root, Colorado State Forest Service assistant forester for El Paso, Teller and Park counties. “Wildfires are a natural occurrence. We’re going to have wildfires from now until the end of the world. It’s the fire behavior that we’re trying to alter.”
Mitigation not only increases the chance a structure will survive a wildfire, but helps firefighters do their jobs, Root said.
“It’s a simple matter of two basic steps: one is to reduce the amount of fuel around your house, including trees, grasses, possibly even landscape plants,” he said. “The other is to make sure that your home itself is as fire-hardened as possible.”
The Colorado FireWise construction guide recommends residents create a buffer around their house known as defensible space. In the 15 to 30 feet closest to the home’s foundation, all trees except one or two should be removed. At least 100 feet from the house, trees should be spaced 10 feet between their widest branches. Beyond that, trees and shrubs should be thinned and pruned as necessary. “Ladder fuels,” or low hanging branches that enable a fire to spread from the ground to the crown of a tree, should also be removed.
The guide encourages the use of noncombustible construction materials such as metal, concrete, cement, brick, stucco and stone. The first five feet from a house’s foundation should have nonflammable ground cover, such as a deck or patio, and no planted vegetation.
Gutters should be free of leaves, pine needles and other fuels. Metal screens can be installed on vents to cover openings to a home’s interior and prevent embers from sparking a fire inside, Root said.
While color-coded maps are available online through the Colorado State Forest Service and city fire department to help residents understand the fire danger in their area, Root stressed that wildfires are a risk anywhere fuels exist.
Amy Sylvester, wildfire mitigation program coordinator for Colorado Springs Fire Department, said the city is home to 21 neighborhoods recognized as fire-adapted communities. The fire department offers free consultations to help homeowners get started on mitigation efforts, Sylvester said.
“The biggest misconception people have is that they think we are going to go in and ask them to clear cut around their home, but that’s not the intention of our program,” she said. “It’s just making small changes on their property to change the way fire behaves.”
The consultations are tailored to each property’s topography, size and location. The consultations are particularly useful for homeowners who might not be able to create 100 feet of defensible space, Sylvester said.
“We look at the construction features of the home and the vegetation around the house, and we give them (homeowners) recommendations for their property,” she said. “It’s purely educational. It’s up to them to decide what they want to do with the information.”
To date, the fire department has assessed more than 36,000 homes.
During peak wildfire season, residents are also asked to be cautious about activities that may spark a fire, such as disposing of smoking materials improperly or mowing the lawn, Sylvester said.
Residents can stay informed by signing up for the local emergency alert notification system at www.elpasoteller911.org. The system has changed since the Waldo Canyon fire, so some subscribers may need to re-register, she noted.
Officials say more residents are aware of wildfire mitigation steps and are making changes to their properties.
Local crews often help with mitigation efforts, said Capt. Larry Bell of Black Forest Fire and Rescue Protection District.
“It’s definitely picked up as far as mitigation work goes,” Bell said. “A lot of the residents are taking it to heart, but there’s still work to be done.”