Friday, October 25, 2013

Officials: Get prepared for wildfires

Chiefs, county leaders give advice on how to protect houses

Express Staff Writer

The Beaver Creek Fire burned one house in Greenhorn Gulch in its march through Blaine County, and came close to many others. Photo by staff files

   A panel of fire chiefs and county leaders discussed Blaine County’s preparedness for wildfires in a forum hosted Tuesday night by the nonprofit Idaho Conservation League.
    The event at The Community Library—entitled “Wildfire Preparedness through a Fire-Adapted Community”—included a presentation from Ketchum Fire Chief Mike Elle about the challenges faced and lessons learned from the Beaver Creek Fire, as well as a panel discussion with County Commissioner Larry Schoen, Wood River Fire and Rescue Assistant Chief Jeff Nevins and Elle.
    In his presentation, Elle briefly recounted the efforts of numerous agencies during the Beaver Creek Fire in August, discussing some of the difficulties encountered in acquiring the resources that were needed. Due to the overwhelming activity of wildfires all over the West, the amount of help available was limited.

Ask yourself
if you have something that will burn today,
right up to your home.”

Mike Elle
Ketchum fire chief

    “Here in the Wood River Valley, we are a little isolated from the rest of the state,” he said. “It takes a while for everybody to come help us. We need to do everything we can ourselves to make our valley more survivable.”
    Home “survivability” was a theme that Elle emphasized several times during his presentation, saying that creating “defensible space” does not provide enough protection from wildfires.
    “If you get in your car and drive away, will the fire burn past it and not set it on fire?” he asked.
    Elle showed photos and video footage of the Beaver Creek Fire burning up to several homes in the Greenhorn Gulch area, citing several that encountered issues despite the existence of defensible space.
    Elle also mentioned his desire to see wooden roof shingles eradicated in the valley, due to their extreme flammability. He discouraged homeowners from placing sprinklers on their roofs, since firefighters need all the water supplies in the area to be available to them. He said sprinklers should be used as a last resort, and at the discretion of the firefighters on the scene. Elle said homeowners should also think about their deck furniture, firewood stacked outside the home and access to their property.
    “We have to be able to get safely to your home, and able to see a visible address,” he said.
    During the panel discussion, many of the attending public’s questions were in regards to resources that can offer further information about the safety of their property. Since funding for a “firewise” education program is currently not available, homeowners can contact their fire department for a property tour and assessment of its safety.
    “Your local fire department is as interested in it as you are, and would be surprised to learn that homeowners are interested in discussing it,” Nevins said.
    The panel also suggested that the community give active support for a reinstated firewise program.
    “We could resurrect the program on a small scale, but we have budget restraints just as most municipalities,” Nevins said.
    The discussion of support for a firewise program led into questions regarding the local costs accrued due to the Beaver Creek Fire, which burned more than 110,000 acres on the west side of the Wood River Valley. A percentage of the firefighting efforts must be paid by the Ketchum Fire Department and Wood River Fire and Rescue.  
    “I think political support for the kinds of zoning and subdivisions ordinances for fire safety is needed, as well as organizing a regional effort where everybody chips in,” Schoen said. “Getting these things done takes public support.”
    Schoen said “anywhere in our community is at risk. The idea that you are in town and that you’re somehow immune from fire danger is not a sound idea.”
    He noted that there were reports of the Beaver Creek Fire spotting over a mile and a half away.
    “You as an individual can go outside and walk around your house,” Elle said. “Look at your neighborhood. Ask yourself if you have something that will burn today, right up to your home. That’s something everyone can do.”

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