Springing into wildfire season

Smoke from the Lower North Fork Fire billows from the wildfire near Pleasant Park and Foxton on March 26, 2012.

Few words elicit as much fear in mountain residents as the words, “smoke check” spoken over the Mountain Area Scanner channel.

On March 26, 2012, just a few days after spring began, the day was warm with clear blue skies but the winds were howling through the mountains with speeds as fast as 80 mph. Around 2 p.m. the winds ignited embers from a nearby controlled burn performed by the USFS the week before.

I hear stories that residents near the fire called 911 with concerns over the vast amount of smoke in their area. Turns out they were correct to be worried. The fire overtook the area around Foxton Road, Pleasant Park and the South Platte River and spread like, well, wildfire.

Named the Lower North Fork Fire, it burned along the ground and trees with speeds reported up to 55 mph. Nobody can outrun flames traveling that fast. People died during in the early hours of the inferno and it’s unclear if they received a reverse-911 call and text notifying them to leave the area immediately. Had these people either received or headed the warning, they would have survived.

I received an email and a text, both sent at 5:06 p.m. 3 hours after the fire started and by then it was far out of control. I also live about 15 miles from where the fire started and many questions have been asked about why people as far away as Texas received notification but those living near the fire didn’t.

There are advantages to living in the mountains: peace, beauty, tranquility and adventure. The difficult challenges include the weather, isolation and of course, fire.

Some pictures taken by my favorite Post photographers show houses completely destroyed while others just a few yards away remain standing. There’s no rhyme or reason as to why fire does what it does.

Some say mitigation is the key: A national organization called Firewise trains communities how to mitigate their property and provides some financial and grant support for neighborhoods that sign up for yearly projects. The Bar B has improved mitigation since I bought the house; trees have been taken down and slash removed. Slash turns out to be a perpetual cycle because after each winter, there’s more on the ground. The slash can be ground up by a chipper or hauled off to a slash collection site but the sites only run in the summer and that’s still a long way off.

Most people have a “to-go” box, a package with all things important. Most people have a 5-minute list and a 30-minute list taped on their refrigerator and can include photos, papers, mementos and really anything of value to the homeowner. A friend told me that when her family received an evacuation notice, they weren’t prepared and wasted valuable time trying to get their wits about them. Precious minutes can be lost trying to decide what to take. It’s best to make the list long before the evacuation order comes down.

Almost every fire department in the mountain area is a volunteer organization. Supported by mill levy taxes assessed by the county, the organizations are in charge of keeping homes and property safe. It can be a tough job but many of mountain residents are incredibly grateful for those who risk their lives to be a fire fighter.

The community really came together to help residents and support the first responders. At one point, they asked that people stop bringing food and supplies to area fire stations and the command centers at Conifer High School and West Jeff Middle School. Both handmade and professionally printed signs and even the Spirit Rock at Conifer High School expresses thanks to the fire fighters both local and from all over the U.S.

The Lower North Fork Fire burned more than 4,000 acres and three people lost their lives. This weekend fire crews have contained the fire but crews and residents are waiting for the threat of warm weather to bring a rise in fire danger once again. Red flag warnings are a common thing during the spring, summer and fall months. The only real relief is several feet of snow on the ground. But who wants that?

The calendar says it’s spring.

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