Fire Ready

2003 Fire Ready in the news

2004 News
2002 News

  • "Tiny Beetles Attacking Trees Across State Pack a Punch," Durango Herald, October 11, 2003
  • "Battling the Ips," Durango Herald, October 11, 2003
  • "Slurry System Protects Homes," Durango Herald, September 7, 2003
  • "Wildfire Slurry for Homes Comes to Colorado," Denver Post, September 1, 2003
  • "Fending Off the Flames," Boulder Daily Camera, June 30, 2003
  • "Resident Reflects on Personal Responsibility," Durango Herald, June 15, 2003 (2003 Homeowner's Guide to Fire Prevention)
  • "Beetle Epidemic: Seek Treatments, Hope for Best," Pagosa Springs SUN, June 12, 2003
  • "Ready for Fire," Building America magazine, Spring 2003
  • "Creating Defensible Space," Pagosa Springs SUN, April 24, 2003
  • "Mitigation franchise battles fuel-laden forest danger," The Mountain Ear (Nederland, CO), April 24, 2003
  • "Fire Fears," National Public Radio, March 4, 2003
  • "Foresight Saved Durango Homes," Denver Post, February 17, 2003
  • "Tiny Beetles Attacking Trees Across State Pack a Punch"
    Durango Herald

    By Dale Rodebaugh

    The beetle attacking piñon pines across the Western states, including Colorado, is one of 11 species of ips beetle, according to Dave Leatherman, a Colorado State Forest Service entomologist.

    Eight species of ips attack pines and three go after spruce, Leatherman said. The ips, about the size of a grain of rice and reddish-brown to black in color, usually attacks trees weakened by root injuries or under stress from drought.
    The ips' modus operandi: A male bores under the bark of a tree to build what is known as a nuptial chamber. Females are attracted by pheromones (chemicals) produced by the male.

    After spending the winter under the bark of a tree or in litter at the base of a tree, the ips emerges in the spring to begin its attack on weakened trees. A new generation of ips can appear about every two months. Homeowners who cut trees for firewood to reduce wildfire danger are contributing a prime ips breeding site, Leatherman said. The bugs will make their home in the cut firewood.

    In face of the ips infestation, homeowners can take a number of steps to protect their piñons. Experts say some of the things to keep in mind:

    • Trees susceptible to ips attack are newly transplanted trees, trees with root injury from construction or trees near large populations of beetles.
    • Water trees adequately, but not excessively.
    • Thin stands of piñon to allow each tree enough sunlight and nutrients to remain healthy. Thinning should be done in the winter, the ips' dormant period.
    • Spray healthy trees, not dead ones, in the spring and summer. Insecticides include permethrin (Astro) or carbaryl (Sevin).
    • Spraying is intended for valued trees. It is not meant as a forest-wide practice. Ryan Borchers, with Fire Ready Inc., said his firm charges $575 for the first 200-gallon tank and $540 for the second. A 200-gallon tank, he said, should protect 30 to 60 piñons.
    • Cut dead trees and haul away or burn logs during the beetle's dormant season in the winter.
    • Chip cut limbs and spread debris thinly.
    • Never stack green or coniferous logs or infested logs next to living coniferous trees.
    • No chemical treatment exists for trees already infested with the ips beetle.

    Every evergreen has its nemesis, Leatherman said. While the ips attacks piñons and spruce, the ponderosa pine is under siege by the mountain pine beetle, the western pine beetle and the red turpentine beetle, he said.
    Some 358,000 ponderosa in Colorado fell victim to the mountain pine beetle last year, mainly around Vail and Buena Vista.

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    "Battling the Ips"
    Durango Herald

    By Dale Rodebaugh

    MANCOS - Like a fort on the frontier, the 40 piñon-studded acres owned by Lee and Peggy Cloy west of here stand as a bulwark against the advance of the ips beetle, which is ravaging millions of acres of the pine in the West.

    Perhaps 15 percent of the Cloys' trees are infested, but compared with neighboring land, the acreage is relatively untouched. The Cloys' unflagging offense against the beetle may be paying off.

    They have good reason to fight for their forest. The idyllic setting includes meadows and a 4½-acre reservoir as well as piñons, ponderosa pines and two or three species of cedars all sheltering Willowtail Springs, a bed and breakfast. The couple also markets the site for weddings, corporate gatherings and weekend getaways.

    With permission from neighbors, Mr. Cloy sprays trees on their property near his fence line. "I don't like to get kamikazed," he said.

    Now a state entomologist is holding up the Cloys as an example of what landowners can do to protect trees from the beetles' attack. Dave Leatherman, who visited the couple Thursday, said: "No one is going to stop the ips on a regional scale. You have to put your trees on life support and ride it (infestation) out."

    Life support, Leatherman said, means watering when possible, spraying uninfested trees, correctly removing and disposing of dead trees and thinning piñon stands, which gives the remaining trees a better chance of survival.
    Leatherman was in Mancos to join foresters, arborists and suppliers and applicators of chemical sprays in a public forum Thursday evening. The goal was to update the public on the ips infestation and explain what can be done to combat the epidemic.

    The ips beetle, about the size of a grain of rice, is creating havoc across the West, Leatherman said during a tour of the Cloy property.

    "We have 4.2 million acres of piñons in Colorado and about 40 percent of them are infested with ips to some degree," he said. In Colorado, the Southwest and the Front Range from Colorado Springs through Cañon City to Trinidad have been the hardest hit, Leatherman said. But the ips now is putting in an appearance in Grand Junction.

    "Probably no one alive has seen such an infestation of ips beetles in Colorado," he said. "But we're the tip of the iceberg." The infestation extends to California through the Southwest, including New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Nevada.

    An Oct. 9 article in the Albuquerque Tribune said that the current level of ips infestation in New Mexico hasn't been seen since the 1950s.

    The drought is the root cause of ips infestations, Leatherman said. Without water, trees can't produce the pitch or sap that push out invading ips as they bore into a tree.

    "Pitch is the tree's natural defense," Leatherman said. "The ips is not aggressive, so it needs a pre-disposing factor such as stress caused by drought."

    Fire suppression has contributed to the severity of ips infestations by thwarting nature's way of thinning forests, Leatherman said. Without periodic wildfires, forests become overcrowded. Competing for sunlight, water and nutrients, trees are more vulnerable to infestations.

    Leatherman pointed to a pitch tube, a tiny protuberance on the bark of a dead piñon indicating where a beetle had bored into it.

    "This is where a male with his harem of maybe three females will spend the winter," Leatherman said. "Around April, the eggs will hatch, followed by the larva, pupa and adult stages."

    With a hatchet, Leatherman removed a section of bark to reveal an ips beetle scurrying for cover. When they emerge in the spring, young adult ips start looking for green trees, Leatherman said. A new generation will emerge about every two months, he said.

    While ips beetles generally pack it in for the winter in November, there could be another generation in flight soon if the warm weather holds, Leatherman said.

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    "Slurry System Protects Homes"
    Durango Herald

    By Tom Sluis

    La Plata County residents seeking to fireproof their homes have one more weapon available with the introduction of slurry spraying machines available through a Mancos-based company. For about $1,700, Fire Ready sells a pressurized tank filled with 120 gallons of the same fire retardant used by US Forest Service air tankers - enough to cover a 3,000-square-foot home. The slurry is sprayed with a 100-foot hose operated manually. Automatic operation through permanently installed tubes on a home is also available.

    Although innovative, the device is just one part of complete fire-mitigation efforts, said Kristie Borchers, co-owner with husband Ryan, of Fire Ready, which sells the device. "If you don't do any mitigation work around your home, you will still have a blackened landscape," she said. But at least you will have a house.

    The product is manufactured by a company in Sisters, Oregon, called FireBreak Spray Systems, run by ex-football professional Stan Brock and chemist Jim Aamodt, who created the misting systems used in grocery stores nationwide to keep produce fresh.

    "What we wanted was a way for homeowners to essentially have an aerial bomber on call ready to dump on a house," said Brock, who played for the New Orleans Saints and the San Diego Chargers. On Friday, Brock said buildings sprayed with the retardant near Sisters are in the path of one blaze and may be undergoing a trial by fire, literally.

    Unlike the slurry dropped from the air, however, the retardant for homes is not dyed red. It lasts until washed off or the next rain arrives, and since it is fertilizer-based, it is non-toxic.

    Other fire-resistant products are on the market such as gels or foams, but don't offer protection for as long as the slurry, which dries on the sprayed surfaces, Borchers said. "One concern with barrier products such as foams or gels is that people may get a false sense of security and try to stay and fight a fire when they should be evacuating."

    In Southwest Colorado, Fire Ready uses L&L Construction based in Cortez for the installation. Jim and Linda Workman are also selling the systems in Cortez.

    "It's a sexy little product," Borchers said. "For folks who own second homes, the unit can be activated from anywhere in the world with just a phone call." These high-end installations, however, can cost up to $10,000. Interest has been very high since the product was announced, Brock said. "We are starting to meet with developers to install the systems in new homes," he said. "With the phone technology, it is possible for a local fire chief to simply dial a number and trigger the systems."

    No electricity is needed to remotely trigger the system since it has backup batteries, but a downed phone line is the system's Achilles' heel, Brock said. "We do offer a satellite phone option, however," he said.

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    "Wildfire Slurry for Homes Comes to Colorado"
    Denver Post

    By Electa Draper

    MANCOS - Homeowners can use the same weapon against fire that the Forest Service has used to save thousands of homes and millions of acres - minus the air tankers and red dye. Designer slurry for homes is here.

    The man who invented misting systems for grocery produce teamed with a former National Football League and University of Colorado player to tackle the threat of catastrophic fires to woodland homes.

    About two years ago, grocery-store innovator Jim Aamodt and former CU Buffalo and San Diego Charger Stan Brock began marketing home-slurry sprinklers through Firebreak Spray Systems LLC.

    A system can coat the outside of a house and its landscaping with a nontoxic, water-soluble fire retardant identical to what the Forest Service uses, except that it is colorless. Last week near Sisters, Oregon, Aamodt and Brock worked feverishly behind the lines at evacuated Camp Sherman, which was menaced by a 45,000-acre fire.

    "We were actually just finishing up some installations," Aamadt said over his cellphone. His motivation in developing Firebreak, he said, was the ownership of his own woodland house in The Dalles, Oregon. "I thought to myself when I bought it, ‘How am I ever going to protect this house?'"

    The answer, he said, was the marriage of his produce-misting work and decades of Forest Service know-how. His slurry sprays recently became available around Colorado, through Cortez-based L&L Construction and Mancos-based Fire Ready, a fire-mitigation service. Fire Ready also has franchises in Boulder, Pagosa Springs, Telluride, and Fort Collins.

    Firebreak systems can be a simple hand-held sprayer or as elaborate as needed with multiple tanks. Prices range from about $1,750 to $10,000. Unlike gels and foams now in use, effective for about eight house before they slide off, Aamodt said, the nonstaining slurry mixture stays on a home or vegetation. It retards flames until washed off by hose or rain.

    The systems are self-contained. No power or fuel is needed to propel the slurry. Pressurized nitrogen tanks spew it. The system can be activated at the site or remotely by calling the system on the phone and entering a code.

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    "Fending Off the Flames"
    "Nederland startup aims to help homeowners prepare for wildfires"
    Boulder Daily Camera

    By J. Adrian Stanley, for the Camera

    A new Boulder fire mitigation company hopes to prepare local homeowners for another Colorado summer. Fire Ready, which opened a new location in Nederland in February, appeared on the heels of the worst summer for wildfires Colorado has ever seen.

    The new owners, Jennipher Murphy and Darren Stepanik, said they are not looking to gain off the losses of last year; they just want to help Boulder County citizens protect their properties and themselves. "We don't really want to work off the panic mode," Murphy said.

    But the wildfires of last summer have opened the eyes of many homeowners, Stepanik said. "It's all coming down to awareness, people are pretty much forced to become aware when there's a forest fire," he said.

    Boulder Fire Ready is the latest location of the company that began in Durango under the same name in 2001. The Durango company has quadrupled its business since opening and is now doing mitigation year-round. Recently, the company introduced a line of products to help consumers protect their homes from fires.

    The Durango Fire Ready had 75 clients in the area of Durango where citizens were evacuated for fire last year. All the homes, including two the fire directly passed over, survived.

    Justin Dombrowski, of the Boulder Fire Department, said wildfire mitigation has experienced growth since last year. "After a year like last year ... you see a spike in interest," he said.

    Dombrowski urged consumers to research their mitigation officers and look at other preventive measures to work in conjunction with mitigation. "Mitigation is an important step, but it's one of a few important steps," he said.

    Murphy and Stepanik began their busiest season with three employees. They plan to hire more help as needed. They bought all new equipment, including a large capacity chipper. The two said jobs can take a while to complete depending on the size of property and what level of mitigation is performed. Some people choose to do more extensive mitigation than others.

    Essentially, mitigation creates a defense barrier, or several defense barriers around a property. The barrier is achieved by clearing what mitigation officers and firefighters call "fuel" or small trees, brush and debris. This low-lying vegetation can help fire climb trees. Mitigation also involves clearing some trees and other flammable items close to the home.

    Many people find mitigation unappealing because they believe it will upset the beauty of the forest surrounding their home. Murphy and Stepanik said they believe mitigation can help beautify a home by opening up views of mountains and wildlife. Mitigation also increases property values.Murphy and Stepanik said mitigation does not mean clear cutting; groups of trees are left standing, so long as they are far enough apart to keep fire from spreading through tree-tops.

    "If a tree does not have to come out; it will not come out," Stepanik said.

    Prices range for fire mitigation depending on the amount and intensity of work done. Although mitigation can be pricey, Stepanik said he believes it is worth the cost. "When it comes to protecting your most valuable asset it's a small price to pay," he said.

    Although Stepanik said homeowners could do fire mitigation themselves, he explained that it is very labor-intensive to do so. Skills also come into mitigation, especially when falling trees close to a house. A tree falling on a roof could destroy the very property an owner is trying to protect.

    Wildfires are not as uncommon as many might assume. Dombrowski said that although firefighters are not expecting as heavy of a season for fires as they had last year; they are expecting fires. In fact, he said, wildfires have been reported almost on a daily basis. These fires have been extinguished before they could grow.

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    "Beetle Epidemic: Seek Treatments, Hope for Best"
    Pagosa Springs SUN (Pagosa Springs, CO)

    By Tom Carosello

    They are mere millimeters in size but number in the millions, and the effects of their destructive infestation across a huge swath of southwestern Colorado have become more and more visible with the passing of each month.
    Usually referred to as "bark beetles" or "engraver beetles," their scientific namesakes include "ips confusus" and "ips calligraphus."

    Although they are native to the area, in the past few years a lingering drought has enabled the beetles to flourish disproportionately and wreak havoc on weakened populations of pinon and ponderosa pine.

    After taking refuge in brownish dead and dying trees throughout the winter months, they emerge when springtime temperatures consistently climb into the 50 to 60-degree range to seek out new breeding grounds.

    And they have staked a claim in Pagosa Country.

    Their arrival has not gone without notice, however, and Chimney Rock Archaeological Area provided the setting this week for the latest in a series of regional battles pitting the ravenous insects against humans.

    "It's a huge problem," says Glen Raby, Chimney Rock site manager. "They're into stands of ponderosa and pinon at several locations within the area."

    In an effort to curb the spread of the beetle epidemic, said Raby, a state-licensed applicator sprayed the largest and healthiest of the area's trees with carbaryl, an insecticide which is also commonly known as sevin.

    Raby indicated the treatment is aimed at saving what the Pagosa Ranger District referred to as "the most aesthetically pleasing trees at the site" while reducing the potential hazards resulting from the beetles' continued onslaught.

    One such threat is the increased risk of infected trees serving as the catalyst for wildfire, since they become tinder dry after dying and remain so for many years before decay sets in.

    "We're just trying to treat groups of trees that haven't been infected yet and hope for the best," said Raby, who added a second spraying will be scheduled for later this summer.

    The beetles can reproduce at a rate of 2-4 generations per year under the proper conditions, and according to the ranger district, only a sharp decrease in average winter temperatures or a prolonged period of wet weather will help slow their spread.

    Symptoms of beetle infestation include small round holes in the trees' bark and a yellowish to reddish-brown dust accumulating in crevices or at the bases of the trees. Another indication of infection is an increase in the number of woodpeckers becoming attracted to the trees and stripping the bark to get at the beetles.

    While there are currently no effective remedies for trees that are already infected with the insects, Raby said the same treatment services used at Chimney Rock are available to the public.

    "For safety purposes, I think it's probably better to use someone who is licensed," said Raby. "It's not something you want to mess with if you are not sure exactly how to proceed."

    For those who are willing to tackle the problem by themselves, the following is a list of suggestions provided by the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension:

    • Obtain an insecticide containing either permethrin of carbaryl (sevin) and follow the manufacturer's recommendations for the proper rate for bark beetle treatment.
    • Promote vigorous tree growth by properly siting/spacing trees in landscapes. Use adequate - but not excessive - amounts of water thereafter.
    • Do not store firewood or freshly-cut materials near susceptible trees. Fresh branches and other green materials should be chipped or treated so that the inner bark area is destroyed; beetle larvae will not survive such measures.
    No chemical treatment exists for trees already infested by the beetles. In rare cases where it is feasible to reduce the threat to live trees by killing beetles before they exit, treatments involve bark removal, chipping the wood into small pieces, covering piles with a double layer of 6-millimeter thick clear plastic sealed around the edges with soil to heat the wood, or physical removal of infested material from the site to an area a mile or more from susceptible trees.

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    "Resident Reflects on Personal Responbility"
    Durango Herald

    By Pam Johnson, Special to the Herald

    We hired a fire mitigation company just one month prior to the Missionary Ridge Fire burning through our property. Had it not been for the excellent job that the crew performed, we would not have a home or the surrounding trees today.

    We were assured that we had a "defendable space" around our home by the fire department and that if a fire came close they would be there to protect it.

    The reality is that they were not there. Nor was our home foamed with fire retardant as all the others were in the area. In addition, back-fires were set below our house, which burned up toward us, in an effort to protect the houses below.

    In spite of all this, our home was not touched by the fire. In the areas cleared of ladder fuel the remaining trees also survived.

    I erected a sprinkler system on all four corners of our house, and these sprinklers ran almost continuously for two days prior to the fire burning through our property. However, at the time of the fire, all electricity had been cut to our area and the system was not on. The house, decking and surrounding plants and grass were, however, well soaked. I believe this also played a significant part in protecting our property.

    I could be bitter about the fact that nothing was done to protect our home when we were assured that it would be. But I can only assume that it was determined at the last minute that our house was too isolated in the middle of old-growth forest at the end of a steep ¾-mile road to risk the lives of our young firefighters.

    Knowing all of this, it is all the more important that we did the fire mitigation and took steps to do what we could as responsible home and property owners to protect our own. It is not right to expect others to put their lives at risk when you have done nothing to prote3ct your property. And while insurance may replace the structure and other property that you have lost, it cannot replace the mature trees that burned.

    Our home stands today, still surrounded by our beautiful mature trees, because we did the right thing

    (Pam Johnson is a property owner near Durango, Colorado. Fire Ready performed mitigation on her property.)

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    "Ready for Fire"
    Building America Magazine, Spring 2003
    Published in the Archuleta County and Four Corners editions

    The sound of a chainsaw breaks the stillness of a too-warm January morning. But the trees coming down are black, not green. The work being done today is not fire prevention, but fire rehabilitation and soil stabilization. Fortunately for this property owner, the crew is working on the outer edges of the property near Helen's Store. "We've been here before - doing mitigation work in that area over there," said foreman Jon Borchers, pointing towards the house. Extensive mitigation work was done around the home and in the surrounding forest just weeks before the Missionary Ridge Fire wrecked havoc on the hillsides. A raging treetop fire devoured the landscape around this ranch, while the home and mitigated areas were untouched by fire. The defensible space acted exactly as intended - the fire dropped to the ground and smoldered in the wood-chips left from mitigation work.

    Nearly 1.3 million Colorado residents live in high wildfire risk areas. Predictions of a prolonged drought cycle, coupled with dense forests, increase the likelihood of catastrophic wildfires. Historically, Colorado forests burned regularly. Slow burning ground fires periodically cleaned the forest of brush, leaving larger trees and open areas. A century ago, ponderosa pine forests contained 25 to 60 stems per acre. In many areas, these same forests today are supporting well over 275 stems per acre. The overabundance of fuel and stands of same-age trees are results of fire suppression and past logging practices.

    Western droughts are common. In past conditions, trees could survive drought. However, in dense forests where too many trees are competing for limited nutrients and sunlight, the weaker trees can no longer withstand the lack of water and are more susceptible to catastrophic wildfires and insect infestations. The number of homes and communities within forested areas has skyrocketed. Today's wildfires burn hotter, are dangerous to fight, and are destructive to personal property and the natural landscape.

    Homes may ignite during a wildfire in three ways - by direct flame contact, through radiant heat transfer, or when burning embers land on a roof or a deck. Burning embers can travel miles in front of the main fire, often igniting spot fires.

    Proactively reduce your wildfire risk:

    • Consider wildfire hazards when choosing a building site.
    • Use fire-resistant construction materials, especially for the roof.
    • Thin and remove hazardous vegetation surrounding the home.
    • Develop emergency water supplies.
    • Annually prepare for fire season.
    • Talk to your neighbors about reducing wildfire risk.

    Defensible space is a circle of protection around a home or structure where forest fuels have been modified. A common misconception is that "defensible space" means "clear cutting." Removing all trees and vegetation is not necessary to protect homes and property from wildfire, nor is it advised for aesthetic and soil erosion reasons.

    By thinning the weak, dead, and over-crowded trees, islands or pockets of vegetation are created and the continuous canopy is broken - creating firebreaks that can slow or stop a fire's spread. Vegetation that can transport fire to the treetops (called ladder fuels) should also be removed. The remaining slash should be chipped, burned, or hauled. The dimensions of defensible space around a given home depend on topography, vegetation type, construction materials used in the structures, and how a fire might behave in the area. This work will not only reduce wildfire risk, but also increases property value, improves scenic views and access, and improves the health of the remaining forest.

    New Construction Considerations

    Choose a building site with respect to wildfire hazards - build in flat areas set back from steep slopes. Avoid building in gullies since they can act like a chimney - increasing fire behavior and intensity. Have the Colorado State Forest Service or local fire department evaluate potential locations.

    Defensible space is as important to your home as a solid foundation. In new construction, it is usually less expensive to create defensible space after the driveway access has been constructed, but before the home has been built. Consider incorporating a circular drive with a large enough turning radius to accommodate fire trucks and other emergency vehicles.

    Evaluate Existing Structures

    Create defensible space around your existing home by thinning out the vegetation and removing ladder fuels. The size of defensible space varies by site. Defensible space needs to be extended in down-sloping areas. Focus mitigation efforts in areas of prevailing winds and where the potential for ignition is highest, such as along roads.

    Once a primary defensible space protects your home, consider working outward in a secondary zone to protect your forest. Thinning efforts surrounding the defensible space will further reduce the threat of radiant heat and after the fire passes, will leave more green trees. Stay on top of forest growth with annual maintenance.

    Subdivisions at High Risk

    Subdivisions located in the wildland-urban interface are at an increased risk to wildfire because of the density of homes and limited access roads. Firefighting resources are stretched thin during a wildfire event, especially when entire subdivisions are threatened. There are not enough firefighters to defend every home. Homes without defensible space place firefighters at unreasonable risk and may have to withstand a wildfire alone. Fire prevention should be evaluated as an entire subdivision.

    "You can create defensible space on your one acre and provide a better chance of your home surviving a wildfire. But when multiple landowners are all committed, it provides a much greater protection during a wildfire event. Reducing wildfire risk needs to be a concentrated, community effort," says Dan Ochocki, Durango District Forester for the Colorado State Forest Service.

    Consider forming a fire prevention committee that will evaluate fire hazards and emergency access, mitigate common areas, launch an awareness campaign for residents, and develop plans for wildfire notification and evacuation.

    Get Involved

    Fire will remain a part of the natural landscape. Humans and lightning will continue to ignite fires. The actions we take on our private property will determine the intensity of these fires - whether ground fires that are easier to control, or catastrophic, treetop fires.

    "I thought we had said good-bye to everything," said Jackie Dzuibek. Defensible space saved her Los Ranchitos home from the Missionary Ridge Fire.

    For More Information
    Colorado State Forest Service
    Firewise Construction - Design and Materials
    Fire-Resistant Landscaping, no. 6.303
    Forest Home Fire Safety, no. 7.304
    Firewise Plant Materials, no. 6.305

    Fire Ready provides wildfire prevention services, including defensible space creation. Visit us on-line at Call 970-533-7078 in the Durango/Cortez area or
    970-759-9380 in the Pagosa Springs area.

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    Creating Defensible Space
    Pagosa Springs SUN (Pagosa Springs, CO)

    By Tess Noel Baker

    Last summer's Missionary Ridge, Valley and Million fires licked a little too close to home for some. A pall of smoke hung over Pagosa Springs for nearly a month and had people asking, "What can I do to protect my home?" The answer: "Create defensible space."

    Pagosa Fire Protection District Chief Warren Grams said, following the 2002 fires, district personnel performed between 200 and 300 defensible space property inspections. Through such inspections, provided free by the district, residents learn how to reduce the chances of fire stealing away their homes by tree-trimming, cutting and cleanup.

    Now that the fire season approaches once again and people begin spring home improvement projects, local and state agencies are working to remind everyone of the lessons of a year ago through "Wildfire Prevention and Education Month" activities planned in Archuleta, La Plata, San Juan and Montezuma counties. As part of those activities, Grams took seven people on a tour of Pagosa Springs, pointing out the good, the bad and the ugly in local defensible space.

    Ugly was first.

    "We cannot defend this house," Grams said at the initial stop on the tour. The house was built at the bottom of a fairly steep slope and surrounded by dense groups of ponderosa skirted by oak brush and other undergrowth. Trees crowded up against the driveway. The undergrowth, plus the lower branches of the ponderosa combined to create an environment of ladder fuels that would simply pull a fire right up into the crowns of the trees, Grams said. "If it gets up in the crowns of the trees, nobody is going to stop it."

    He also pointed out several problem homes built on ridgelines. Problems with these include both fuels available for a fire and access. Fire, he said, will generally move more quickly uphill as the heat and flames rise, tearing through fuels above them. That means thinning on steep slopes may have to extend farther from a home to create the buffer needed to control a fire or knock it to the ground.

    Access to ridgelines for the large equipment is another concern. Long, winding roadways with one or more tight switchbacks may be fine for regular vehicles, but may or may not allow fire tankers and pumpers enough room to maneuver in the best conditions. Throw in mud or snow and it becomes near impossible even with chains and four-wheel drive.

    "I don't know if I can get a fire truck up there in February with the snowpack," Grams said, pointing to one large home perched on a long ridge. In at least one case, he said, because of a home's distance from a fire hydrant, location and the amount of foliage, the owners have been dropped from insurance coverage, or bumped up to a much higher rate.
    Sometimes, the additional costs have been enough to push people to consider fire mitigation work on their property. Others have decided to take up the labor on their own, or have found state grant funds to help.

    As a demonstration last summer, Grams said, the district worked with private home owner Patty Sterling and the state to get a 50/50 grant for mitigation work on her property in the Meadows subdivision. Her home was the second stop on the tour and the first example of property with good defensible space. A home where fire could be kept low to the ground and fought with a much better chance of success.

    Branches on the mature pine trees had been trimmed up 10-12 feet from the ground, still leaving a few dead branches for bird-roosting. Oak brush was cut back and trimmed into small stands. The crowns of the trees were separated by a minimum of 10-12 feet, except for a few clumps. Grams said it was acceptable to leave a few clumps of trees for a more natural look. The space from one clump to the next tree should be even greater than the 10-12 feet recommended between crowns of single trees to prevent the fire from getting a boost from the larger area of fuels.
    "If there was a wildfire in this area, we could come in here and foam this down until you couldn't see anything but white foam and go on to the next one."

    Grams said it takes about 15 minutes to completely cover a home in fire-retardant foam, a high-dollar biodegradable soap that helps protect the home for several hours.

    Because of the state's budget crisis, he said, grant funds could dry up this year. However, much of the work simply takes muscle, patience and perseverance. Or a call to one of several companies offering tree-thinning services in the area.

    Karen Aspin and her husband, Bill, are working to create defensible space on their 12 acres by themselves. They've been at it now for two or three years and have quite a bit of hillside to consider. To start, they asked Grams to come look at the property and help them prioritize. Clearing trees back from the driveway and away from the propane tank proved to be the first order of business. From there, Aspin said, they've moved on to the pine trees, removing ladder fuels to make it more difficult for a fire to crown.

    "We still have so much left to do but it's starting to look beautiful, really park-like," she said.

    Mitzy Forbes, educational multimedia specialist with the Colorado State Forest Service, purchased a home in Pagosa Springs in January. As soon as weatherpermitted, she and friend Jonathan Steiner started a defensible space project on the 2.6 acres, which includes a fairly steep slope. In their case, state forester Dan Ochocki came out to inspect the property, mark trees and set priorities. From there, they got to work, using whatever time they had.

    "I work from home, so I'd take an hour for lunch, some time after my work day and weekends and head outside," Forbes said. For clearing out the undergrowth and small stuff, she used a basic pair of pruning shears. Steiner attacked the bigger stuff, clearing out more than two dozen trees. To finish the project, they hired a tree-trimming company to come in, chip the smaller downed branches and remove four additional trees leaning near the house. When finished, the goal is to have healthier trees remaining, less competition for water resources and a clear avenue for firefighters if necessary.

    "Wildfire Prevention and Education Month" activities are presented by the San Juan Mountains Association in partnership with the Colorado State Forest Service, Durango Fire and Rescue Authority, Firewise Program, local fire departments, National Forest Foundation, Office of Community Services at Fort Lewis College and the San Juan Public Lands Center.

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    Mitigation Franchise Battles Fuel-laden Forest Danger
    The Mountain Ear
    (Nederland, CO)

    By Barbara Lawlor

    Not a single Fire Ready client lost their homes in the Missionary Ridge Fire in Southwest Colorado, says Ryan Borchers, Fire Ready, Inc. founder. "The fire came to the edges of the defensible space surrounding Fire Ready homes. Unfortunately, nearby homes without defensible spaces burned."

    Borchers recommends that homeowners prepare now for another intense fire season, and they have four offices in Colorado to help mitigate that fire danger.

    Fire Ready, Inc. is the nation's only franchisor of wildfire prevention and protection services, and Big Springs residents Darren Stepanik and Jennipher Murphy have opened an office in Nederland, to serve Gilpin and Boulder counties.

    Jennipher has lived in Big Springs for the past seven years and has grown increasingly concerned about the fire danger that has besieged mountain residents recently. She has been in sales/management and serves on the Wild Bear Center for Nature Discover board. She is the mother of two children who worries about the fact that Big Springs would be a hard to defend area if there were a wildfire.

    "With so much fire danger, I began investigating how to be a better homeowner, and ran across Fire Ready out of Durango. I talked to them about starting a franchise in this area and we partnered up. We now have offices in Telluride/Ridgway, Pagosa Springs, Durango, and here.

    "The advantage of being part of a franchise is the support that is available from the other offices. I attended intensive training in fire behavior and mitigation in Durango and have worked on Forest Service land. Being a member of a franchise is a team effort."

    Jennipher says she is eager to begin work in the area to create healthier forests. Even though there is fire danger, she says homeowners can still have trees on their property if the trees are located strategically.

    The more she learned about fire mitigation, the more she realized she needed a partner with on-site experience working with crews. She met Darren Stepanik who works construction and owns Tribal Fiber, which makes and imports hemp products. The partners invested in equipment, pole pruners, chain saws, and chippers, that can handle the tree width in the area, and they expect to be ready for business in May, if the snow melts, that is.

    Darren says he has been looking for an opportunity to stay closer to the mountains. "I recently worked in Fourmile Canyon, and every day I noticed how thick the forest looked around us. It is not a good situation. When Jen approached me, I was interested. After doing some research, I became excited that we had found something that will keep us both here."

    The Fire Ready partners see their business as being a great service to the area. Fire mitigation is fast becoming a necessary chore for mountain dwellers. Darren says insurance will replace your house, but not your home. Mitigation will also increase your property value.

    "There is a lot a homeowner can do, but a franchise can call in extra crews and share information. We are locally owned and we have a lot of flexibility, its not a cookie cutter approach."

    Fire Ready's goal is to leave most of the material on the property, by either chipping or stacking the wood. They have no plans to sell the timber, they just want to focus on mitigation. They will work with homeowners and not just tell them what to do with their aesthetic values.

    "It works," says Darren. "I have seen it work." Company founder Ryan Borchers says, "This outlet will provide a valuable service to area residents. We have found terrific partners in Darren Stepanik and Jennipher Murphy of Nederland. They are enthusiastic to properly educate owners and assist them in protecting their property from a catastrophic wildfire event."

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    Fire Fears

    National Public Radio story by KSUT reporter Eric Whitney

    Foresight Saves Durango Homes
    Denver Post

    By Electa Draper, Denver Post Four Corners Bureau

    Many of those who live in Los Ranchitos are still amazed their houses are standing.
    Last year's catastrophic Missionary Ridge fire roared through the thick woods and nibbled at the edges of this mountainside subdivision. Unlike neighboring settlements, though, Los Ranchitos made it through without losing one of its 33 houses.

    Residents can, in large part, thank themselves.

    Long before the firestorm, the people of Los Ranchitos had done something that was almost as unusual as it was smart, according to Colorado State Forest Service forester Dan Ochocki.
    Residents asked Ochocki to assess the health of their forest. Rarer still, they listened and took action when he told them back in 2001 to get rid of some trees and brush - something fire-prone neighborhoods throughout Colorado should do, he says.

    Los Ranchitos homeowner Aurora Rose says she remembers her fateful conversation with Ochocki: "He took a deep breath and said, 'If I were you, I'd really be worried about fire."'

    So she and her husband, George, and neighbor Lynn Sutherland, formed a fire prevention committee to explore a subdivisionwide approach, including tree-thinning and evacuation plans.

    "More and more people started jumping in," Aurora Rose says. Eventually, about two-thirds of the property owners participated.

    The group got a 50-50 matching grant for $12,000. Such federal grants are available through the state Forest Service for landowners and for some subdivisions where enough homeowners agree to participate in thinning.
    However, the competition for grants is stiffening as awareness increases, Ochocki says.
    "I wouldn't want anyone to wait or count on government help to do the right thing for their property," Ochocki says.
    For fiscal year 2002-03, southwestern Colorado property owners received $54,700 of a $2.4 million statewide pool, Colorado State Forest Service Fire Division supervisor Rich Homann says. Homann, like Ochocki, urges homeowners not to rely on grants.

    This year's fire season is looking as if it could be as bad as, if not worse than, last year's. In the Four Corners, in addition to the danger from drought, a beetle infestation has killed countless pinon trees over millions of acres, leaving the forests more susceptible than ever.

    At Los Ranchitos, residents' efforts were eerily prescient.

    The systematic and scientific thinning of the subdivision's plant growth and trees, carried out by a new company called Fire Ready, began in the summer of 2001 and was resumed the next spring. The last bit of work was done the day before the eruption of the region's worst fire in history, the 70,000- acre Missionary Ridge fire.
    Four days later, as flames spread closer to Los Ranchitos and several subdivisions along Florida Road just east of Durango, residents were told at a public meeting with firefighters that the blaze was heading their way and would be on their doorsteps in four or five days, Rose says.

    The fire arrived within two hours.

    "My neighbor was running through the cul-de-sac with one shoe on and one shoe off," announcing the inferno's advance, Rose says. "I saw trees exploding down the canyon. When we drove away I was crying. I told my husband we'd never see our house again."

    Ryan Borchers, founder and co- owner of Fire Ready, drove to the subdivision where he had been so busy and saw flames licking the top of the ridge. A firefighting veteran of 12 years before his switch to fire mitigation, he knew he was about to find out if he had done his job.

    He watched the fire race through thick stands of timber toward Los Ranchitos. It hit the border of the subdivision - and lost its intensity.

    "It works," he said to himself.

    Much of the ground litter was gone. Bushes and low tree branches, or so-called ladder fuels that link ground and treetops, were much sparser. The crowns of trees were far enough apart to thwart the fire's feeding frenzy.

    Almost 50 Durango-area houses ultimately burned in the fire; statewide, blazes consumed 384 homes in 2002.

    "There are a good number of us who feel that without Ryan our homes would not have survived," Rose says.

    The Durango business Borchers runs with his wife, Kristi, has grown in three years to include franchises in Pagosa Springs, Boulder and Telluride. Similar companies, such as Timber Tech and Fire Smart, have sprung up.

    Bids for clearing work vary according to growth and terrain around homes, but generally a Fire Ready 12-person crew's rate is $1,200 a day. That could be enough time to help safeguard a 1- to 2-acre lot.

    During the Missionary Ridge fire, Fire Ready got 25 calls a day to create defensible space, Kristi Borchers says. As soon as firefighters contained the blaze, many people called to cancel.

    "That was pretty short-sighted," she says. "Most people don't start calling until the fires are burning."

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    Last Updated: 12-03-2007
    © 2002-2006. Fire Ready Inc.