As Lake County residents living close to or within the wildland urban interface, we are at a higher risk than most to wildfire’s threat. Whether via flames, occupational hazards or compromised air quality, wildfire can lead to human suffering or even death.
In Lake County Government’s community survey on wildfire dispensed last spring, 99 percent of respondents indicated that the lives of firefighters and first responders are “extremely important” or “important.” Ninety-six percent of responders indicated the same for human life in general.
The survey data confirms that safeguarding human life from wildfire is of great value to the Lake County community. The same holds true for our local emergency response agencies who dedicate countless resources and hours to protecting humans from wildfire through training, the strengthening of Lake County’s emergency infrastructure and mutual aid.
Each spring, Lake County Office of Emergency Management (LCOEM) organizes a wildfire tabletop exercise, a facilitated discussion among local, state and federal partners about each agency’s role in responding to a hypothetical forest fire.
This year, partners including local emergency response agencies, state entities such as the Colorado State Forest Service and the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, and federal agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, worked together to respond to a wildfire “approaching” Gordon Acres. They determined road closures, tested communication systems and figured out how to account for individuals on the move.
“It’s really nice to be in the same room as these partners in order to prepare if something were to break out,” LCOEM Director Cailee Hamm said of the event.
In past years, tabletop exercises have responded to various scenarios, including a wildfire approaching Parkville Water District’s infrastructure on the east side, as well as the neighborhoods of Silver Hills and Four Seasons. The annual training event is emblematic of the ways emergency response agencies prepare for the worst.
Leadville/Lake County Fire-Rescue (LLCFR) also hosts an annual wildfire training, one that includes didactics review at its Harrison Avenue station and live fire scenarios in the field. Firefighters practice drafting from a static water source, executing progressive hose lays and managing fire on the ground.
Many local firefighters build on these skills by participating in wildland deployments throughout fire season. The deployments, which are coordinated by LLCFR, send local engine teams across the region to help fight wildfires blazing elsewhere, allowing firefighters to gain experience and LLCFR to earn additional revenue. So far this season, LLCFR firefighters have been deployed to the Sylvan Lake Fire near Eagle and the Dixie Fire in eastern Idaho.
“Wildland deployments are for larger incidents than we typically see in Lake County. Staff members have specific assignments, but also get to see the entire experience of wildland fire,” LLCFR Chief Dan Dailey explained. “It’s a great asset for Lake County because they bring their experience back to us.”
Bit by bit, Lake County’s wildfire response capacity is growing. Ongoing infrastructure improvements include the southern fire station, new community wildfire mapping and upgraded communication systems.
After years of setbacks, construction on the southern fire station is once again underway. The multi-use facility, which is expected to be completed this spring, will boost the operational capacity of several agencies.
The southern station’s different bays will house a Lake County Public Works road grader, search and rescue equipment, fire vehicles and one of the two St. Vincent Health ambulances staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A classroom area will serve as a secondary emergency operations center when needed.
For LLCFR, the station will open opportunities for increased staffing. Six of the station’s nine bedrooms will be reserved for interns who will receive free housing, an education stipend for Colorado Mountain College’s fire science program and on-the-job training in exchange for five days of engine coverage with LLCFR per month.
“We hope it will incentivize young firefighters to join the department and then stay with us for longer,” Dailey said.
The internship program is loosely modeled off SAFER, a U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant program, of which LLCFR was formerly a recipient, intended to help small fire departments across the country grow response capacity. Housing interns will allow LLCFR to maintain its current staffing model, and at some point transition to four-person engines at all times.
From 2016 to 2019, LLCFR’s simultaneous call volume (when the agency responds to multiple calls at once) increased by 35 percent. Adding a fourth staff member to LLCFR’s engine companies and a southern facility from which staff can cover both southern and northern Lake County will aid the agency’s end goal of protecting human life.
Lake County Government is currently spearheading a wildfire mapping project with the help of Colorado Forest Restoration Institute to better understand the community’s high risk areas and most valued assets.
Once complete, a booklet of maps will highlight areas of the county with single ingress and egress routes, reservoirs, conveyance lines and treatment facilities for drinking water, radio towers and transmission lines, historic structures, and more. The maps, which will soon be available to the public, will help residents understand which areas of Lake County are at the greatest risk. The maps will also help Lake County Government determine future priorities for wildfire mitigation projects.
Communication — letting people know when they need to evacuate or avoid areas — is an important piece of protecting human life from wildfire. LCOEM now has two different emergency alert systems to help reach at-risk individuals in Lake County.
The office utilizes Everbridge, a public warning platform, to deliver critical information to Lake County residents who have “opted in.” The alert system pings users’ phones based on the address provided in the registration process, not current location.
In the past, LCOEM has utilized Everbridge to send messages to those with residences near gas leaks, active shooters and structural fires. To avoid notification fatigue, LCOEM does not send notifications about road closures or traffic.
“It is always extremely difficult getting people signed up and is something we prioritize,” Hamm noted of the opt-in alert system. Residents can sign up by texting 80461 to 888777 or by visiting LCOEM’s website.
Currently, only 1,914 residents of Lake County’s 8,000-some people have opted to register for Everbridge. And in Lake County Government’s community wildfire survey, 66 percent of respondents said they feel confident that they can easily obtain timely and reliable information in the event of a local wildfire, yet only 41 percent of respondents indicated that they were signed up for Everbridge.
The office also utilizes FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) platform. IPAWS is different from Everbridge in that it is an open communication platform tied to cell carriers.
All mobile devices connected to Lake County cell towers at any given time (unless an individual has opted out) will receive IPAWS messages whether for an AMBER Alert, a weather warning or a change in COVID-19 guidelines. In the summer months, when Lake County’s towns and campgrounds are filled to the brim, IPAWS messages often reach over 15,000 people.
Everbridge and IPAWS serve different purposes. Everbridge can alert a Leadville resident working in Eagle County of a wildfire happening at home, while IPAWS will alert a tourist camping in Lake County of a nearby forest fire.
Because both alert systems require cell service to receive messages, boots on the ground, usually in the form of law enforcement, are an essential part of getting the word out about wildfires to areas of Lake County without cell coverage. For example, when a small wildfire broke out near High Mountain Institute in 2018, Lake County Sheriff’s Office deputies cleared nearby campgrounds in person.
As air quality degradation from wildfires becomes a bigger concern for residents of the western United States, LCOEM and Lake County Public Health Agency (LCPHA) have taken a role in communicating such concerns to residents.
An air quality monitor attached to the Lake County Courthouse sends real-time measurements to the state, which then notifies LCPHA and LCOEM if there are concerning levels of toxins. Both agencies will then post health alerts to social media.
The courthouse monitor is also connected to Purple Air, an online monitoring network that maps air quality levels in realtime. On July 26, Purple Air showed “acceptable” air quality in Lake County while noting a health alert in Routt County where the Morgan Creek Fire is blazing.
The protection of human life from wildfire in Lake County is fortified by a variety of mutual aid agreements between local agencies and surrounding counties and state and federal governments.
For example, LLCFR utilizes mutual aid agreements with Eagle, Summit and Chaffee counties where Lake County can receive up to 12 hours of mutual aid coverage free of charge. This could look like Summit Fire manning the Leadville fire station while LLCFR responds to a wildfire start near Twin Lakes, or the Greater Eagle Fire Protection District responding to a vehicle accident on U.S. 24 south of Ski Cooper while LLCFR responds to a structural fire in Leadville.
“We receive more than we give because our organization is so small,” Dailey noted of such partnerships.
But, occasionally, LLCFR is the agency to provide mutual aid. For example, LLCFR might respond a wildfire start on San Isabel National Forest land before the Forest Service’s Salida-based fire crew can get there, handing the case off to the federal agency at their arrival.
And in the case of large wildland fires like the Treasure Fire near Birdseye Gulch in 2012, management is an interagency effort, requiring the teamwork of various emergency response organizations.
Lake County’s efforts to mitigate risk to human life due to wildfire are ongoing. Local firefighters continue to be deployed to wildfires across the region, the southern station is still under construction, maps are still being drawn, and LLCFR continues to call on support from other fire agencies. As wildfire risk in Lake County evolves over time, so too will efforts to safeguard human life.
In the next installment of “Our Forests” to be published on Aug. 12, the Herald’s reporter, Patrick Bilow, will investigate wildfire’s risk to wildlife in Lake County.