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As Much Of The Western U.S. Experiences Drought, States Are Preparing For Wildfires


People who live in areas at risk for wildfires should be taking steps right now to protect their homes. In Colorado, many people are getting help with that. Much of the western part of the country is in drought, so that is raising fears of a bad summer for wildfires. Grace Hood of Colorado Public Radio has more.

GRACE HOOD, BYLINE: Lester Karplus has lived in his four-bedroom log home north of Boulder for a decade.


HOOD: The day we meet, he's cutting up a fallen evergreen tree near his house.


HOOD: He says late spring can be an anxious season in the rural Colorado foothills.

LESTER KARPLUS: The moisture is below normal, and that means that the vegetation is probably going to be drier.

HOOD: Karplus is working with a voluntary Boulder County program that tries to reduce fire risk. Wildfire Partners gave him a detailed plan and money to defray the cost of thinning trees and shrubs.

KARPLUS: If you don't take an active role in making the forest fire-safe for your house, you're going to lose it.


HOOD: Recent spring fires in states like Arizona and Oklahoma serve as vivid reminders of what's at stake. Still, Colorado fire officials worry homeowners may not be doing enough. It's been five years here since a destructive fire season. At a recent wildfire briefing, Governor John Hickenlooper warned about the growing fire risk. Speaking inside an airplane hangar, he worried homeowners may be complacent.


JOHN HICKENLOOPER: Making sure that individual homeowners, property owners of all kinds - that they're aware, that they're paying attention and that they are exercising the common sense fire precautions necessary - that's got to be priority No. 1.

HOOD: One analysis found more than 228,000 homes in Colorado's rural foothills face extreme to moderate wildfire risk. Mike Lester, Colorado's chief forester, says he's dispatching his staff to share fire reduction tips with large groups like homeowners associations.

MIKE LESTER: And I do worry about complacency because you see that year after year. Normally if there's a big event, it's on people's mind. They're taking the right steps. But as that recedes in memory - life's full of a lot of different inputs, and people tend to forget about these type of things and focus on the next thing.

HOOD: Lester recommends thinning trees up to 200 feet from homes, removing nearby bushes and even keeping the grass cut short. Meantime, the Boulder County program Wildfire Partners is taking a customized one-on-one approach.

JIM WEBSTER: It's not enough to do one thing or have a checklist.

HOOD: Program manager Jim Webster says the county uses grant money to pay professionals to develop detailed plans for homeowners which sometimes top 30 pages.

WEBSTER: If a homeowner has a customized plan to know exactly what they need to do, like removing junipers up against structures, that can really reduce the chance of that home igniting.

HOOD: It's hard work and costly, but it paid off for Boulder County resident Lester Karplus two years ago. A small wildfire surrounded his home on all four sides. It burned half a dozen homes nearby but not his.

KARPLUS: Well, I can guarantee you that if we had not done the work, we would not have a house today.

HOOD: Today, Karplus' property looks like a moonscape with burned trees that are black as ink. As he approaches a large clearing, he says his long-term goal is to clear remaining trees. As the climate continues to warm and wildfires become more frequent, he wants to replace it all with farmland.

KARPLUS: Yeah, I'm pretty excited. We got some good sprouts coming - also got some barley, some rye, oats.

HOOD: It's a different look from what Karplus first imagined for his property, but a landscape without trees and brush means there's a lot less to worry about. For NPR News, I'm Grace Hood in Boulder, Colo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.