"It could have been so much worse"

Photo taken by Craig Watson

SAGUACHE — When asked to describe the fire event that destroyed a house in the Baca Grande subdivision earlier this week, Robert Woelsz’s answer is a little unexpected.

“It could have been a whole lot worse.”

The response wasn’t meant to diminish what the homeowner experienced. Far from it. Woelsz readily acknowledged the significant loss suffered by the homeowner multiple times throughout his description of the scene.

But, in his role as Director of Saguache County Office of Emergency Preparedness, Woelsz knows what could have happened had the property – and, even moreso, the effort of the man who lived there – been different than it was. And what could have happened is nothing short of catastrophic.

Baca Grande is similar to many subdivisions. Houses built on one, two and five-acre lots. Stunning views surrounded by thick stands of pinyon pine and juniper trees. “It’s beautiful country,” he says. “It really is beautiful.” And clearly, others agree. Woelsz says the area is “exploding” with “new houses being built all the time.”

But soaking in the ambience of mountain living while surrounded by trees, sometimes standing right next to the house, carries with it a significant measure of risk. And in multiple areas of Saguache County and other areas in the San Luis Valley, that risk is extreme.

“We had good monsoonal moisture, but that’s all dried up now,” Woelsz says. “Everybody is focused on California and other places, but Colorado has just been very, very lucky. The fuel indices are very, very high. Fire danger is going to be high to extreme this fall. And, as much as I hate to say this, it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”

The “it” Woelsz speaks of is a massive wildfire.

Woelsz estimates there are several thousand homes in the area, so any fire would have spread very quickly, but the homeowner’s work stopped that..

“That’s the bigger story here. Mitigation. If that owner had not done the mitigation he had done, this fire would very quickly have spread to adjacent properties.”

When Woelsz speaks of mitigation, there are very specific things a homeowner can do to protect his or her property. Surrounding each home is an area firefighters refer to as the home ignition zone—an area that extends 30 feet from the house. In the case of this individual’s property, there was no debris near to the structure and that ignition zone was “well cleared of vegetation, and his trees were nicely pruned.”

Some of the work was done with the help of the Saguache Firewise team, a grant-funded program staffed with individuals who – at no cost – assess a property’s risks and, sometimes, actually do the work themselves.

“His property was beautiful,” Woelsz says, “especially compared to some of the other property we’ve seen. This man lost his home, but what he did saved the homes of his neighbors.”

Crestone and the Baca Grande area are two places Woelsz focuses on because of characteristics that are common in catastrophic situations. “When there are roads that aren’t marked and twist around like a maze with only one road for egress and people trying to leave when it’s dark and smokey…that’s a perfect storm for a catastrophic fire event.”

Saguache County also has limited resources. “We only have about ten volunteers with the fire department. We only have four or five trucks, including tenders that bring the water. We’re only going to be able to save the homes where it’s safe to do so. We’ll concentrate on getting people out first and then we’ll focus on saving the homes where it’s safe.

“That is why fire mitigation is so very crucial,” he says.

Woelsz has held fire education events in the past but they fall short of providing the education people need. The Spring Creek fire prompted a lot of interest from people, but “those are things that people easily forget because they turn their attention to the next big thing, like Covid. Plus, we have new people moving in who haven’t lived in a setting like this before. The area is also exploding and brand new residents may not realize the risk inherent in the area they’ve just moved into.”

Woelsz encourages people to sign up for emergency alerts. “It’s the biggest way we can save lives. The SLV relies on an opt-in emergency notification system, so people have to register to receive the notifications. You can register your email, your cell phone, your work phone. I recommend people register where they work, where they live and where they play. We recently tested the emergency alert system in Crestone and we had a huge response. That’s the way to get the message out to folks if there is imminent threat to life or property.”

Information about contacting the Saguache Firewise team or registering for the emergency alerts can all be found on the Saguache County website.

“People need to be educated, to keep themselves informed with notifications. Plus they need to be doing whatever they can to mitigate their property. We live in a fire adaptive community. We have to learn to live with it.”

They border the national forest, the Baca Grande Wildlife Refuge and the Sand Dunes National Park. It’s beautiful country. Beautiful place to live. It’s quiet. But it’s also on a south-facing slope with pinyon and juniper. It’s a little hilly. It’s getting the heat of the sun-blasted on it every day. So, when there’s a spark in there, it’s going to start running pretty quickly.

We also have limited resources with a small fire department.  Crestone Volunteer Fire Department probably has 10 volunteers with four or five engines – just a couple of engines and a couple of tenders. WE don’t have a big capability to respond. If there’s a big fire, we’re going to have to focus on getting people out of the way.

"If your home is not safe to defend, firefighters will move on to your neighbor’s house if their home is safer."

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