An updated wildfire risk map released by the Colorado State Forest Service shows the foothill towns of Dolores, Towaoc and Durango have a “higher” potential to be impacted by a wildfire.
The Colorado Wildfire Risk Assessment Portal rating measures population density, drought impacts, vegetation density and type, regional weather, geography and other factors to inform local governments and landowners about potential wildfire impacts and to encourage mitigation efforts. Areas were rated on a scale of “lowest’ to “highest.”
In Montezuma County, it is estimated that 90 percent of the population, or 25,400 people, live within the wildland-urban interface that is vulnerable to wildfires, according to the risk assessment summary.
Of those areas, about 7,000 acres are considered at “higher” risk for wildfire – about 8 percent of the total wildland urban interface.
Much of the high risk to wildfire is on federal public and private land. Two groups, Firewise and Wildfire Adapted Partnerships, have been working with at-risk towns and rural neighborhoods.
Cedar Mesa Ranches, Cash Canyon, East Canyon and Wingspread neighborhoods have reduced brush and trees and around homes, improved access for firefighters and implemented community wildfire protection plans.
Of Montezuma County’s 1.3 million acres, 40 percent are on federal land that is prone to natural and human-caused wildfires.
Countywide, 360,000 acres are rated at “high” or “highest” risk. The area includes private land and areas below 8,000 feet elevation, including areas in the San Juan National Forest, Mesa Verde National Park, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument and Bureau of Land Management.
Dolores is rated at “higher” risk because of its population’s proximity to forest.
Town Manager Jay Ruybalid said the town has a emergency management plan in place and works closely with the San Juan National Forest officials and the county emergency planner in case a fire breaks out nearby.
An emergency siren has been repaired and is now operable, he said.
This year, the fast-moving Plateau Fire came within 6 miles of town and triggered voluntary pre-evacuation orders for the Granath Mesa neighborhood north of town.
The fire made a surprise run toward the neighborhood after unusual northwest winds pushed it southward, but it was contained within the forest boundary several miles from private land.
A 24-mile fire break is being constructed along the southern border of the San Juan National Forest to protect private land and Dolores, said federal lands fire manager Patrick Seekins.
Mitigation work has begun, including thinning, reduction of ladder fuels and brush mowing along a 120-foot-wide corridor to create defensible space during a wildfire.
Stretching from the House Creek area east toward the West Mancos River, it is expected to be completed in one to two years, depending on contracts.
Dolores is at risk of ember showers from nearby wildfires, which can start house fires after landing in dry brush or on wooden roofs and decks.
Wildfire Adapted Partnership is conducting a drive-by survey of all residences and businesses in Dolores to identify hazards and educate owners.
Towaoc, nestled in the foothills of Sleeping Ute Mountain, faces the greatest potential for fire impacts on its northwestern side, according to the assessment report.
Emergency Manager John Trocheck said fire mitigation efforts are ongoing and the community has been following fire and trash-burning bans.
“They know the destruction a wildfire can bring, and with the recent large fires in the region, there is an increased awareness of fire prevention,” he said.
On Towaoc’s west side, there has been more thinning and brush clearing in recent years, and there has been an effort to clear debris from homes, Trocheck said. Outside town limits, Bureau of Indian Affairs fire crews have been thinning heavily timbered areas and selectively burning underbrush and ladder fuels.
Also this year, tribal leaders have banned the use of fire during outdoor cultural dances and ceremonies.
Other high risk areas for wildfire are around Summit and Pruett lakes, much of which is private land.
Educating subdivision residents about wildfire risks and how to mitigate them is essential, said Greg Kemp, of Cedar Mesa Ranches. The neighborhood has equipment to put out small fires, works closely with the Mancos Fire Department and keeps a lookout for lightning strikes.
“A lot of people who move here are from a wetter climate to retire and are not as aware wildfire dangers,” he said.
“Simple things like making sure your driveway is large enough for a firetruck and clearing brush away can save your home.”
Cost shares are available for landowners who want to thin forests and create defensible space around their homes, said Amanda Brenner, Montezuma coordinator for Wildfire Adapted Partnerships.
For information about programs, visit their website a www.wildfireadapted.org.