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First project for newly formed wildfire mitigation group: Durango homeless camp

Crews build half-mile line around encampment
City of Durango and La Plata County government officials tour the Wildfire Watershed Protection Fund’s first completed fire mitigation project Wednesday at Purple Cliffs homeless camp along La Posta Road (County Road 213) south of Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The first fire mitigation project supported by the Wildfire Watershed Protection Fund, an intergovernmental partnership between the city of Durango, La Plata County and Durango Fire Protection District, was completed this week at the Purple Cliffs homeless camp south of downtown Durango.

“It’s been a real pleasure to work with this group and to see this communitywide collaboration,” said Durango City Councilor Melissa Youssef.

Representatives from the three partners in the WWPF showed up Wednesday to tour the thinning project around the Purple Cliffs homeless encampment.

La Plata County Director of Emergency Management Shawna Legarza speaks with city of Durango and La Plata County government officials about fire mitigation work done at the Purple Cliffs homeless campsite Wednesday along La Posta Road (County Road 213) south of Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“The goal with this mitigation was to create an opportunity for us to be able to control any wildfires that may start within any camp area here from spreading to the wildland, and also protect the folks that are living here,” said Durango Fire Protection District Chief Hal Doughty.

Doughty said the fire district took a halo approach to the fire line project, encircling the community on the hillside.

“It’s big enough that we think it gives us a chance to stop a fire that’s spreading into the camp or from the camp,” he said. “We also think from the Sheriff’s Office’s perspective it creates a visual barrier so that folks camping here can see the area that they’re allowed to be in.”

Work on the fire-line project was done by the Durango Fire Protection District’s wildland crew.

Speaking to the need for mitigation projects throughout the county, DFPD Wildland Coordinator Scott Nielsen said it is the difference between taking a couple of hours to put out a fire versus several days.

“Fires do one of two things: You either catch them and get them put out in the first few hours, or they take several days. Several days means we need more resources, more people, and help has to come in from outside the area,” he said. “Buying us those minutes and hours through mitigation projects is worth so much.”

Durango Fire Protection District Chief Hal Doughty speaks to local government officials about the importance of fire mitigation this week at the Purple Cliffs homeless camp. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The crews created a half mile of fire line spanning about 1,200 feet across the top, with two paths going up the side that are each about 550 feet. The width of the fire line is about 50 feet.

Nielsen said he’s not sure how many days it took to complete the fire mitigation project, but his six-person crew has spent around 320 work hours creating the fire line.

According to the wildland crew, working with residents to get the mitigation project done was easy.

“People want to be here and they want to keep their camps safe,” Nielsen said.

A combination of city and county funding was used to pay for the $9,200 project. Doughty said using the fire district’s wildland crew saved a lot of money, because this is the type of work it does during fire season, so there was no need for a contractor.

“Durango Fire Protection District was lucky to still have access to our seasonal wildland firefighters, who do this kind of work cutting fire lines for a living on wildfires,” he said.

Crews took extra time to cut and stack firewood piles for the Purple Cliffs community.

“We knew that if we just cut the stuff and made piles, that they’d get ransacked and spread out, so our crews took the time to cut the bigger stuff into firewood-sized pieces so they could easily be utilized by the folks that camp out here,” Doughty said.

La Plata County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Chris Burke said residents at Purple Cliffs are allowed to have fires as long as they don’t exceed 3 feet by 2 feet in size. Propane heaters are allowed inside shelters.

The WWPF was recently formed to work with public and private landowners and state and federal agencies to expand and accelerate landscape-scale wildfire mitigation efforts and forest restoration in the county.

“Our idea is that we have a coordinated approach to fire mitigation,” said La Plata County Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton. “It doesn’t matter where the fire starts.”

This project was something the fire district had been looking into for some time, and was able to be taken on quickly by the WWPF.

In the future, the WWPF plans to hire a coordinator and assess community needs for fire mitigation to begin more projects. Porter-Norton said hiring a coordinator will help the WWPF focus on project management.

“We want to have 10 or 15 projects ready to go at any given time,” she said.

njohnson@durangoherald.com

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