One of my favorite places on earth is Aspen, Colorado. Because I spend a lot of time there, I stay quite active and contribute to the community as much as possible, such as serving on the board of ACES, an environmental organization.
A recent initiative that has my full support is Aspen Fire Department’s Wildfire Community Action Fund (WCAF), with Ali Hager leading the charge. There’s been an increase in wildfire risk over the last few decades—and it’s been exceptionally bad the past three to five years. Modern Colorado history hasn’t seen anything like this before, so the community and all of the wonderful folks who call Aspen home need a hand navigating this uncharted territory.
What’s the Problem?
One of Colorado’s largest fires—the Hayman Fire—wiped out 137,760 acres in 2002. But in 2020, there were three wildfires bigger than that: Pine Gulch that hit 139,007 acres, East Troublesome at 193,812 acres, and Cameron Peak at 208,913 acres. That means that 4 of the top 5 largest wildfires in Colorado have occurred in the last three years.
And even more recently, Colorado experienced another devastating wildfire heading into 2022 that tops the state’s history in terms of destruction. The Marshall Fire has reported that as of January 6, 2022, “updated totals confirmed to date countywide are 1084 residential structures destroyed and 149 residential structures damaged. Total countywide actual value of residential damage is estimated to be 513,212,589.”
As explained by WCAF:
In recent human history, fires were immediately put out to protect lives and save assets. This “fire suppression” technique disrupted natural wildfire cycles and allowed hazardous levels of flammable materials to build up on the landscape.
While yes, fire is natural and regenerative, a century of those fire suppression practices has created a heavy fuel load such as sticks, dead trees, and brush to cause wildfires to occur more frequently, spread faster, and burn hotter. Warmer seasons and regular drought haven’t helped the situation either.
But it isn’t just the warmer seasons that are causing concern, considering the Marshall Fire is a strong example of the extended fire season. We usually think of the fire seasons being summer and fall, yet we just saw something that would have been previously unthinkable during Colorado’s “snowy” season.
In this face of increased risk and concern, the Aspen Fire Department and other stakeholders in the community have come together to strategize mitigation plans. There are several small things that homeowners can do, and then there are also plans in motion for the grand scale of treating several thousand acres at once.
Mitigation on a Grand Scale
On a large scale, there are several different forms that WCAF has been exploring for wildfire mitigation—AKA actions that minimize the destructive effects of a fire. Some examples include:
- Prescribed fires
- Mastication (mulching up hazard vegetation)
- Thinning trees and brush
- Goat grazing
- Hazardous brush removal along evacuation routes
- Eliminating “ladder fuels” (fuel that can carry a fire burning in low-growing vegetation to taller vegetation)
- Integrating natural barriers and other forms of defensible space
Between seeing drier climates, rising temperatures, less precipitation, overcrowded forests, beetle infestations drying out trees, and other natural shifts in the environment, the wildfire risks are going up, so the goal is preparing how to handle its effects.
Wildfire mitigation won’t only protect this great mountain town and its people but also assist with fuels reduction, improve forest health, protect watersheds, restore habitats, keep tourism and recreation strong, and contribute to the overall well-being of Aspen.
Mitigation at the Homeowner Level
Aspen Fire has been working incredibly hard to stay ahead of things, maintaining five fire stations throughout the district. They have also partnered with Pano AI to install high-tech, rotating camera stations to detect wildfires on the landscape as early as possible.
Knowing it takes a community to make this initiative happen, the fire department has some great tools to support efforts at a homeowner level. These resources can be found on their website and include:
- Wildfire risk assessments at no charge
- Risk mapping
- Tips for “home hardening” (making your property as protected as possible)
- Evacuation preparedness tools
Again, the whole principle is that fire is inevitable, so we need to figure out the best way to live with it. If and when a fire spreads to town, the question is: How can residents change behavior so that the Aspen Fire can best stop the spread?
How Can You Help?
This is all a fine plan, but outreach and meeting different segments of communities have been challenging. Since Aspen is a heavily populated tourist destination and spot for second homeowners, there are only about 5,000 to 10,000 people who live there year-round. But when peak season rolls around, there are sometimes 40,000 people living there, and they often won’t know the depth of what’s going on.
The Aspen Fire Protection District started as a volunteer fire department and has just recently started officially funding firefighters, which in turn means they haven’t built up a budget to roll out the scale of work that they’re doing—and it absolutely needs to get done.
So luckily, federal grants are available, but they always require a match. The WCAF needs donations from anyone and everyone to raise enough money to leverage those funds into bigger projects—with that matched by the federal grants. It’s also worth noting that Aspen Fire Protection District is a qualified tax-exempt government entity, and as such, your contribution may qualify as a tax-deductible gift.
You can donate to the Wildfire Community Action Fund here.
If you have any questions about the initiative or donating, you can contact Ali Hager, Director of Community Wildfire Resilience: firstname.lastname@example.org.
We all need to be thinking like team players, and we cannot do this alone. I’m all in to help one of my favorite places in the world, and we need community support to work with us and help enable these projects. Please consider donating to make it as easy as possible to keep Aspen safe!
* All images (featured and in the article) are from Aspen Fire