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After Elk Fire, A Community Questions The Future Of Prescribed Burns

A pile of melted metal is all that's left of Eva Bednar's toolshed. The ponderosa pine trees, shrubs and ground on her mountaintop property in Livermore are charred black from the fire that almost devoured her home.

"It's upsetting," she said, walking through the rubble. "Every time I look out the window, I go, 'I can't believe it happened.'"

Last October, a prescribed burn less than a mile from her log cabin escaped its boundary and became a wildfire. The accident forced dozens of residents to evacuate the quiet community northwest of Fort Collins. Crews spent the better part of three days dropping water and thick red slurry on the flames.

No one was injured during the Elk Fire. No homes were destroyed. But now, as the state conducts its official review of the incident, locals are questioning the future of the practice commonly used to prevent catastrophic wildfire and how they can be better prepared for future emergencies.

"We don't know what happened, but still I don't think this should have happened," Bednar said. "I think something went very wrong and I think it was preventable."

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Credit Larimer County Sheriff’s Office
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Larimer County Sheriff’s Office
Smoke rises from the Elk Fire near Glacier View Meadows in October 2019.

The first sign of trouble came just after 4:40 p.m. on Oct. 16.

The Larimer County Sheriff's Office issued a mandatory evacuation order for dozens of residents in the town's Glacier View Meadows subdivision. Phones buzzed with messages. On Twitter, various emergency notification accounts sprung to life.

"Wildfire in the area of Deep Cut Road and Elkhorn House Road in Glacier View," the alert said, referring to the subdivision of nearly 1,000 people. "Residents and business occupants in the area (must evacuate) due to immediate and imminent danger."

Bednar had just gotten home from work when, outside her kitchen window, she saw something strange. Along the ridge at the edge of her 30-acre property, thick smoke billowed into the sky.

She grabbed her go-bag and got in her car. As she pulled out of her driveway, firefighters arrived en masse. Before she could leave, Bednar said, a crewmember told her to pull back in her garage and go inside.

She sat in her kitchen alone and watched as the crew formed a perimeter around her home. She thought of her husband and three children — all still at work or school. She thought of the cabin she'd built and lived in for more than 20 years.

The fire was coming too fast to leave.

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Credit Eva Bednar
Smoke from the Elk Fire billows into the sky near Eva Bednar’s home in Livermore on Oct. 16, 2019.

The area where the prescribed burn started was the Ben Delatour Boy Scout Ranch, a private property owned by the Boy Scouts of America. The land is typically used for scout retreats during the summer and fall.

Wildfire had been suppressed at the site and throughout most of Colorado's forests for more than a century. That's led to a build up of forest density and hazardous fuels, said Rob Addington, forest and fire program director at the Nature Conservancy's Colorado office.

"There's a need that's emerged to be more actively managing these systems and reintroducing fire as a really important natural process."

"So when we do have wildfires now, they tend to be much more severe and catastrophic than we think fire behaved, historically in this landscape," Addington said. "There's a need that's emerged to be more actively managing these systems and reintroducing fire as a really important natural process."

The burn in question was a 500-acre patch of alpine forest — the largest burn the Nature Conservancy had ever done in the area. The organization spent years planning it, recruiting at least 10 local fire agencies and more than 50 crew members to participate, Addington said.

On Oct. 15, the day the burn started, the crews assembled to make what's called a "go or no-go decision," Addington said. The team weighed a variety of factors including temperature, humidity and wind. The crew's leader, known as the "burn boss," made the final call.

"In this case, things looked favorable and we made the decision to move forward as part of that," Addington said.

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Credit The Nature Conservancy
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The Nature Conservancy
A map shows the planned area for the prescribed burn that jumped its boundary in October 2019. The burn was in the works for years.

At some point between then and the afternoon of Oct. 16, the fire escaped.

Addington said the accident shocked him. Fewer than 1% of prescribed burns escape their boundary, according to several published US Forest Service reports.

The weather or human error could have played a part. But the exact reason why is the subject of a first-of-its kind review by the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control. It aims to nail down what led to the escape and how it can be prevented in the future.

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Credit Titus Parker / The Nature Conservancy
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The Nature Conservancy
Crews conduct a prescribed burn at the Ben Delatour Scout Ranch in rural Larimer County in October 2019. The burn got out of control and became a wildfire on Oct. 16.

A final report is expected sometime in February or early March. 

Meanwhile, the Nature Conservancy is also conducting its own internal review. The nonprofit has paused all plans for prescribed burns this spring until information becomes available.

"I would like the community to know that we understand that it was very impactful," Addington said. "We're taking it very seriously and we're committed to learning from the after action review that the state is conducting and having that information guide the future of our program."

What's clear from several community town halls held in its aftermath, Addington said, is that some residents want to be more involved in planning future burns. That could mean holding more public meetings and increasing communication about the organization's plans through emails or fliers, he added.

"As more and more people are living in the wildland-urban interface, just understanding, I think from the standpoint of what we can do to integrate management that we know needs to occur on these landscapes with what their vision is for their homes and their neighborhoods and their communities," he said.

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Credit Matt Bloom / KUNC
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KUNC
Darlene Kilpatrick works at the front desk of the Red Feather Lakes Community Library, where she and others help run the North 40 Mountain Alliance, an all-volunteer emergency notification network.

At the local library just down the road from Glacier View, a group of residents are going a step further.

They're running a new grassroots emergency notification network called the North 40 Mountain Alliance. The service is designed to vet official information about prescribed burns and, when needed, evacuation information from sources like the Larimer County Sheriff's Office. Volunteers then blast it out to registered community members through emails and texts.

It already has several hundred subscribers throughout Larimer County, said Darlene Kilpatrick, an organizer.

"It's redundancy," Kilpatrick said. "Cause you don't know who doesn't like Twitter, or for people who don't want to rely on all the other million Nextdoor notifications."

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Credit Matt Bloom / KUNC
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KUNC
An evacuation route map is posted outside the Red Feather Lakes Community Library, which serves as a hub for the North 40 Mountain Alliance.

But the system isn't perfect.

On the day the Elk Fire started, Kilpatrick was still at work at the local elementary school's aftercare program when she got the call to help notify residents about the evacuation.

She made sure school staff could cover her and drove to her house in the Glacier View Meadows neighborhood.

From the start, she said, things were chaotic.

Residents were flooding the alliance's website to sign up for notifications. Kilpatrick and a few other volunteers were working from their homes, trying to juggle registering their new members while vetting the stream of information coming out of the sheriff department's Twitter account.

Then, in one of the department's tweets, she saw she was supposed to be evacuating herself.

But instead of leaving, Kilpatrick stayed.

"It was like the oxygen mask first on yourself on the plane instead of others," she said. "That's what I should have been doing and I wasn't."

The fire never got close enough to Kilpatrick's home to be a major threat. But she realized in that moment she needed to recruit more volunteers for the service, she said.

"We can always improve and there's always going to be mistakes," she said. "Hopefully it's people understand that's gonna happen and all we can do is improve from it as much as possible."

She hopes to get more than half of the community's approximately 1,000 residents signed up this year and hold a mock evacuation drill this summer.

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Credit Matt Bloom / KUNC
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KUNC
Charred logs dot Eva Bednar’s property in Livermore. Firefighters cut down several 100-year-old trees as they were battling the Elk Fire in October 2019.

Meanwhile, other residents, like Eva Bednar, simply want answers about the Elk Fire.

She's grateful to the firefighters who saved her home. But 100-year-old trees are lying on the ground in pieces. Firefighters had cut them down to ensure fire wasn't burning inside the trunks.

A fried electrical wire, canoe, cement mixer, saws and tools all remain untouched from last fall.

Bednar and her family are still processing the damage for insurance purposes.

"Hopefully they'll find out what happened and how to correct it in the future," she said, walking through her property, forever altered by the flames. "I don't like prescribed burns. They scare me. I know they are necessary. But I think they need to be done in a safer manner."

Bednar said she'll start the cleanup process when the weather warms up this spring.

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