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Colorado counties respond to wildfire season’s start

Fire planners are trying anything and everything to make 2023 safer
Dense overgrowth of trees near the Sawmill Trail in Golden can pose more risk for a destructive wildfire compared to areas that have been thinned. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

GOLDEN – “Your escape route has just been cut off! You’ll be deploying right up there!” Jefferson County Fire Management Officer Kenyon Shephard says.

He jabs his finger toward a steep slope.

A dozen rookies in khakis and lug-soled shoes race up the forest road, scrambling for their firefighter packs under the pressure of a roaring wind. They shake out lime-green personal survival shelters and hunker inside … 25 seconds … 26 … 27 … as their leader shouts the firestorm is nigh.

The pitched forest road is the driveway of the Lookout Mountain Nature Center. The distracting roar comes from a leaf blower waved in their general direction by a grinning deputy.

But the goal is deadly serious: Teaching a new fire response crew made up of Jeffco Open Space employees how to outrun and outsmart the kind of wildland-urban interface fires that increasingly threaten Colorado’s fast-growing counties. To keep their new certification, they’ll have to show once a year they can haul 45-pound packs across three miles of uphill terrain in 45 minutes.

“What’s it like in there?” Shephard says to his new charges, as they pull tight the edges of their survival bags.

“Terrifying!” one ranger says back.

Moments later, as the survivors emerge into the suddenly silent ponderosa grove, Shephard completes the lesson.

“What do you want to bring inside your shelter?” he asks the group.

“Radio.” “Water.” “Gloves!”

Shephard nods, pleased.

“And a good attitude,” he says. “It’s your worst day if this is happening.”

Mary Ann Bonnell, director of visitor services and natural Resources at JeffCo, deploys a fire shelter. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
Adapting to the inevitable

Up and down the Front Range and in mountain counties crowded with vacation homes and telecommuters, fire planners like Jeffco’s are trying anything and everything to make 2023 safer across millions of acres of where wild areas but up against cities and towns. They are debating new firefighting taxes or spending ones that recently passed. They’re expanding homegrown Hotshot crews. Adding remote cameras monitored by artificial intelligence to spot flare-ups. Locking down private helicopter time to be ready for emergencies.

The most telling change, though, may be philosophical. Adapting to the inevitable, and living with fire every single day – from prevention to suppression to recovery – is now everyday policy.

Seeing smoke billow from a nearby prescribed burn from your kitchen window is part of living in a fire-adapted ecosystem as mitigation experts start fires they say are necessary to reduce the catastrophic effects of wildfire. Public awareness campaigns – from social media to field trips into national forests with U.S. Forest Service rangers – work to help the community understand what it means to live with fire.

But living amid the threat of wildfire requires action closer to home, too. Record participation in chipping programs in El Paso County as people clear shrubs and branches from next to their homes could be a sign of more residents willing to share the responsibility to protect their families and communities.

One county is for the first time working on crafting a fire code that would require new homes in wildfire-prone areas to adhere to safe building standards ranging from roof materials and venting design to moving flammable mulch away from structures. Other counties are tuning up their existing codes in hopes of sticking with local solutions and staving off statewide standards from above.

This year’s above-average snowpack has many fire officials smiling, knowing that extra moisture will likely buy them time they can dedicate to mitigation work. But a handful of gust-driven grass and timber fires forced evacuations in Aurora, Morrison, Park and Teller counties and other locations Thursday and Friday, even as deep snowbanks taunted firefighters from high Front Range peaks.

A healthy snowpack doesn’t shroud the reality that one week of dry, windy days in July – or late March – can quickly move the firefighting burden from Mother Nature to human preparation.

La Plata County
Time-lapse photography shows a pyrocumulus cloud rise to over 10,000 feet above the 416 Fire. Most La Plata County residents found the 416 Fire both awful and beautiful. The 54,000-acre wildfire made national news and resulted in conflicting emotions of fear and wonder for people who saw it. Economic impacts on summer tourism may result in a 35% loss for the local economy. (Durango Herald file photo)

La Plata County knows new wildfire building codes are on the way and are necessary. But officials there believe they can sell a local model faster than any statewide mandates that might be issued from the Capitol in Denver.

A top priority for La Plata’s wildfire advisory board this year is drafting a recommendation for a countywide building code that’s tailored to local homeowners with the hope that it gains support from the community, said Alison Layman, the county’s wildfire and watershed mitigation coordinator. Recent mapping showed the entire county, which surrounds Durango, faced very high risk if a wildfire sparked, she said.

“I think there’s a lot of local pride and so when it’s something that people associate with coming from Denver, there’s not that buy-in and people immediately put up a little bit of a barrier,” Layman said of a possible statewide code. “And so what the commissioners hope to accomplish is getting more support for the idea because they know going that direction is good and instead of people immediately getting defensive about it, trying to make it from the ground up.”

The board also recently crafted public service announcements, choosing specific messages for each month to teach residents how to properly dispose of ash from their wood-burning stoves, for example, or reminding people to sign up to receive emergency notifications.

“Education is a huge focus on everything that the wildfire advisory board incorporates into every kind of decision and action that we bring forward to the commissioners,” Layman said.

The county just received a grant to pay for crews from Colorado Department of Corrections to do roadside mitigation work along the major evacuation routes, she said. Two other grants, totaling close to $1 million, will be used to offer reimbursements to homeowners as incentives to assess wildfire risk on their land and create defensible space around their homes. Before the county could even advertise for the program, more than 30 homes were assessed for wildfire risk and one person completed a project, Layman said.

Grand County

Counties facing equal wildfire threats to their edge communities report broadly unequal resources to strengthen their defenses.

Boulder County’s wildfire-dedicated sales tax slice brings in $11 million a year for the Front Range county.

In Grand County, just over the Continental Divide and home to the Colorado River water diverted for use by most Boulder County communities, a smaller tax base means a scrappier battle for wildfire funds. Residents have conflicting priorities, even at the origin site for the second-largest Colorado wildfire, the East Troublesome fire of 2020. That disaster burned 193,000 acres, hundreds of homes, and threatened Grand Lake before burning out in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Grand County’s fire mitigation work in 2023 will include extensive prescribed burns and thinning in a cooperative effort by Arapaho Roosevelt National Forests crews and local agencies. This planning document shows areas initially proposed south of Hot Sulphur Springs. Massive wildfires like Grand County’s East Troublesome fire helped get Colorado’s Front Range listed on a federal “crisis” mitigation list of 10 areas around the nation. (U.S. Forest Service)

One major lesson from East Troublesome, Grand County Emergency Management Director Alexis Kimbrough said, was to knit together more local resources for everything from prevention, to suppression, to recovery. Grand County gladly accepts outside fire help, and is heavily involved with a massive U.S. Forest Service thinning and prescribed burn effort across the county. But residents feel that learning to live with modern fire reality means stepping up, Kimbrough said.

It’s “the idea of social capital, and really building a community that can rely on itself and its own resources,” Kimbrough said. “Building a community outreach program has been my priority, whether that be a response team or whether that just be a huge volunteer base.”

The county will spend part of the spring debating its update to the state-required Community Wildfire Protection Plan, which sets priorities for fire mitigation, suppression and recovery. The public may comment on the draft starting Monday.

Some county voters want to include local financial resources in that push for homegrown preparedness. A Grand County outdoor recreation and open space tax is up for renewal this year, and county leaders want residents to weigh in on the idea of adding firefighting grants to the allowed projects. Others raised concerns that the seemingly endless demand for fire mitigation projects in the heavily forested county would come to dominate a tax fund originated for biking trails and parks.

Grand County also wants to increase a dedicated wildland firefighting team shared by two local fire protection districts to nine full-timers from six, Kimbrough said.

Eagle County

Climate change is driving the way Eagle County officials look at how to fight wildfires.

In the past two years, the county has added seven positions to meet the demands of mitigation work and amplify its efforts in teaching the community how to become more resilient against fire, said Eric Lovgren, community mitigation manager.

“If we’re talking about fires that are capable of consuming 100,000 acres in a 12-hour period, that are able to burn up thousands of homes in the same amount of time that are being driven by 100-mph hurricane-force winds – every year it will seem like a new record is being set,” Lovgren said. “I think it’s important that we change our approach and look at things more on a landscape level.”

Collaboration is also top of mind for those working to protect people living along the edge of forestland in Eagle County. A new group, called the Eagle County Wildfire Collaborative, aims to unite those who are working to reduce wildfire risk, he said.

The county added a coordinator for the collaborative, three firefighters on the wildland fire team, a deputy emergency manager and a mitigation specialist, he said. A new staff member in the communications department will help the county send out wildfire safety messages in English and Spanish.

To keep up with demands of the community chipping program, where crews help homeowners dispose of the debris collected around their home, Vail’s fire department added a person to its crew, he said.

If the historic summer of 2020, when more acres were charred in Colorado than ever before, is an indication of what’s to come, counties must adapt with new approaches to fight wildfire.

Lovgren remembers the heavy smoke that filled the sky as hundreds of firefighters filled the county for weeks straight fighting Grizzly Creek fire in Glenwood Canyon. Then came East Troublesome, which chewed through nearly 200,000 acres in Grand and Larimer counties.

“It’s the changing nature of fire behavior in an era of climate change and megadrought that I think kind of has gotten everybody’s attention – that traditional methods aren’t going to be effective,” he said. “And we need to really step up our game if we’re going to move the dial on these big fires and prevent catastrophic loss both to the watershed and to people’s homes and lives.”

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