There are plenty of people in the firefighting world who will tell you that in places like Summit County, it's always wildfire season. But as snow starts melting and the dead vegetation beneath it dries out, the risk of ignition ramps up.
"We're starting to get a lot of melt, and these grasses are pretty dry," said Dan Schroeder, head of Colorado State University's Summit County extension program. "This is also a pretty arid climate in general, and as the earth turns and things heat up there's more risk there."
So far, this fire season is shaping up to be a mostly average year, although plenty could still change, said White River National Forest fire management officer Ross Wilmore.
"We're not seeing a remarkable fire season based on conditions, but I also don't see anything so far to suggest it will be less than a typical season," he said. "This time of year we start to see an onset of more human-caused fires before the vegetation starts to green up in the spring."
The annual melt, however, also offers an opportunity to do a little spring-cleaning on fuels near homes and clearing a buffer zone that could ultimately save a structure from burning.
The county is currently accepting grant applications for that type of fuel and risk reduction until April 28, offering to partially reimburse groups of homeowners willing to take some extra precautions.
"These grants don't address imminent fire risk, but they're incentives to take preventive measures that you can't really take when there's 4 feet of snow on the ground," explained Schroeder, who runs Summit's wildfire mitigation grant program.
Through it, the county pays back homeowners associations and other groups for clearing flammable vegetation within 30 feet of all structures and thinning it out into patches beyond that zone.
"You can very much still have that forest landscape and environment, as long as you do it with prevention in mind," Schroeder said.
The program was set up in 2006 but got a steady revenue stream in 2008, when voters approved a funding measure to support it.
"It started off with the pine beetle epidemic when we weren't sure what was happening and the extent of the impact," Schroeder said. "We started to realize that forest management is a good idea. With the pine beetle the forest is always in flux and is generally unhealthy, so we need to be good stewards."
The county will typically reimburse about half of the cost of mitigation, and since 2008 it has doled out roughly $2.5 million — or $300,000 a year. Grants can range from a few thousand dollars to as many as $100,000.
But since private citizens typically foot about half of the bill, that investment has translated into $5 million worth of mitigation work countywide, Schroeder explained.
Recently, the program put up $90,000 for a community to install an array of underground cisterns that firefighters can tap into in case of a major fire.
Grants have also been awarded to neighborhoods with non-reflective wooden street signs — a common feature of some mountain neighborhoods — with signage that's more visible to firefighters rushing to the scene of a blaze.
In the future, Schroeder said, he would also like to see money go towards reinforcing the small bridges that isolate some of the county's communities so that they could withstand the weight of fire trucks, which can come in at as many as 20,000 pounds.
In the meantime, the grant program is willing to consider a wide range of strategies that could potentially protect homes, and by extension, improve the health of forests.
"We want to encourage planning for a natural phenomenon that occurs in mountain communities so that when a wildfire hits — and they hit every year — we've made sure our homes are protected," Schroeder said. "We'll support any creative idea that could help our communities be resilient to wildfires."