Summit Fire & EMS Chief Jeff Berino was driving down the road in Dillon last summer when a troubling call came across the radio: smoke was billowing out of trees west of Silverthorne.
Berino started doing the math in his head. There were drought conditions across the state, fuel sources were dry and fire restrictions were about to go into effect across the county. And then he saw it.
“I remember it like yesterday,” Berino said. “I was in Dillon looking out my window, and I saw this big plume of black smoke, and I immediately knew it was going to be a big one. Just from the location, the size of the plume of the fire and the weather we were experiencing, I knew from that first minute it was going big.”
Berino was right.
A Year Removed
Today marks the one-year anniversary of the Buffalo Mountain Fire, a 91-acre blaze that swept down Buffalo Mountain to within feet of the Mesa Cortina and Wildernest neighborhoods in Silverthorne, threatening up to 1,500 structures and spurring the evacuation of more than 1,600 people.
Emergency workers from across the county immediately leapt into action. Within minutes of the first call, Berino was on the phone trying to pull air support from the 416 Fire in Durango, Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons was working to set up evacuations of the neighborhoods, and incident command posts and emergency operations centers went live to plan the tactical response and share information with the public.
A year later, officials say the quick response was vital in saving homes and lives during the fire.
“Focus is the word that comes to mind,” FitzSimons said. “It was deep and immediate focus. I was leaving a (Board of County Commissioners) meeting trying to get a fire restriction in place, and I got a call from Berino saying I better get over there. If he says you better come, it means now. I knew it was game time. I knew this was not a dress rehearsal. … There was no fumbling around in those early moments. We were deeply focused on getting the job done, and it contributed to the success of handling the fire.”
“To actually see how close it got (to neighborhoods) was unbelievable,” county emergency management director Brian Bovaird said. “If that fire break wasn’t there, and if Chief Berino didn’t call for air power as quickly as he did, knowing how quickly it would have spread through those buildings is crazy.”
Despite a rapid response, the county’s emergency services immediately were pushed to the edge, relying on other state and federal partners, including a Type 2 incident management team, for assistance. And given the fire’s proximity to homes, the stakes had never been higher for emergency workers.
“I’ve been here close to 40 years,” Berino said. “The Buffalo Fire, as far as being a tactical challenge, was the most serious fire we’ve ever had. The Peak 2 Fire could have created some issues for the Peak 7 area, but it was several miles away. The Buffalo Fire was literally 30 feet away from structures. Fighting the fire was extremely challenging, and I’m proud the county’s forces stepped up to the plate. It could have turned out much worse.”
To date, the investigation into the cause of the fire is still open. District ranger Bill Jackson said the fire is believed to be human caused because there was no lightning in the area, though no ignition source has been identified.
As firefighters met the blaze, helicopters and planes buzzed by overhead dropping slurry, and police worked to evacuate the area, residents were left to ponder whether the fire would change their lives forever.
“It’s a scary thought, wondering what’s going to happen to my home, and if I’m going to have a place to stay,” said Michael Weber, who has lived in Wildernest for more than 12 years.
Over the past year, Weber said, the fire has changed the mindset for himself and his neighbors, shifting the thought of a fire from a distant prospect to an ever-present danger.
“I think the threat has been made real,” said Weber, who also serves as the director of human resources for Wildernest Property Management. “Before everyone knew there was a possibility. But this can actually happen. It’s never been as real as it was last year.”
Following the fire, the community responded in a big way. Wildernest Property Management spearheaded a GoFundMe campaign and raised more than $17,000 that was donated to the Summit County Explorer Post, the Lake Dillon Fire Benevolent Fund, the Summit County Animal Shelter, Friends of the Dillon Ranger District and the Buffalo Mountain Metro District.
County officials also lauded the public for their cooperation, understanding and quick reaction to the fire.
“The best memory I have was how amazing and resilient all of the people were that were effected,” Bovaird said. “For some of these people, it was a scary time. They didn’t know if their houses were burned down. They had to persevere and leave quickly. I didn’t have a single negative interaction with anyone from the community. They were all supportive. The cooperation from everyone was amazing and special to be a part of.”
A Different Climate
A year ago today, the fire forecast looked a little different. Going into wildfire season, officials were expecting the worst-case scenario.
“Last year, was certainly different than right now in terms of the snowpack, the amount of water available and fuel-moisture conditions,” said Bill Jackson, district ranger for the Dillon Ranger District. “It was really dry a year ago, and I remember we were all expecting a very active fire season. Nobody expected it to come that early, but the conditions were ripe for fire.”
Berino said that in his near 40-year career in Summit, the county has raised fire risk levels to extreme only three times: in 2002, 2012 and 2018.
But the script has switched this season, as a snow-filled winter and some early spring rain has officials optimistic the county will avoid any major wildfires.
“I’ve seen snowpack anywhere from 300% to 1,000% of normal from this time last year,” Jackson said. “There are big changes in terms of snow and fuel moisture and the level of water we have. We haven’t hit peak runoff yet. So there’s drastic differences in those factors between this year and last.”
Regardless of the forecast, which currently predicts a below average fire season, officials are adamant their mindset hasn’t changed.
“As the sheriff and fire warden, I can tell you it’s not different,” FitzSimons said. “We’re always prepared. We always have to be prepared. You can walk outside and see how quickly things dry out and how quickly things can take a turn. It’s never far from my mind that we need to be prepared for any critical incident in the county, including wildfires.”
As the county’s emergency services work to prepare, officials also have been clear that community members need to do the same. Summit County residents, particularly those in the wildland-urban interface, always should be ready to evacuate on a moment’s notice with a well-stocked go kit, planned evacuation route, and a plan to communicate with friends and family. Residents also should consider getting a free defensible space evaluation from the Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District or Summit Fire & EMS, and signing up for SC Alert to receive emergency notifications.
“Another part of engaging a fire is having a community that understands fire,” Jackson said. “A safe fire response, managing landscapes and learning to live with wildfire makes up a cohesive strategy. There’s a responsibility for locals to learn to live with wildfires, and to look at their defensive space, be mindful where they’re building homes and take advantage of prevention programs.”