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Playing with fire (mitigation)

Rising wildfire risk, impending state codes have HOAs and homeowners leaning into mitigation
Patrick Haller, with Fire Smart Durango, removes dense Gambel oak from land in the Timberline subdivision. The overgrown brush can be extremely hazardous in the event of a wildfire. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Repeated studies have shown global climate change is leading to larger, more severe wildfires.

The raging infernos that sparked Aug. 8 in Maui leveled thousands of homes and killed more than 100 people. The entire Canadian town of Yellowknife, which is about the size of Durango, was forced to evacuate last week under threat by fires pushing up against the town’s edges.

In Southwest Colorado, the Quartz Ridge Fire burning 13 miles east of Pagosa Springs has grown to nearly 1,500 acres as it incinerates inaccessible stands of snags.

The increasing threat of wildfires has spurred state and local officials into action, and they are asking residents to do the same. In accordance with a law signed in May by Gov. Jared Polis, the state will have building and landscaping regulations aimed at increasing wildfire resilience by July 1, 2025.

Mitigation has become the focus of many of these efforts, especially in areas that sit in the wildland urban interface, or WUI. The concept is nothing new, and an increasing number of property owners have sought to reduce fuels on their land after the Missionary Ridge Fire in 2002 and the 416 Fire in 2018.

“This is a fire-adapted ecosystem, you get a fire cycle through here every 10 to 15 years that kind of does what we’re doing naturally,” said Jon Westrup, the owner of Fire Smart Durango, a company that does fuel mitigation. “But of course, we’re suppressing those fires so that doesn’t happen, so you get this crazy overgrowth.”

With state regulations looming and limited grant funding available for mitigation on private land, leaders seeking to make Southwest Colorado more fire resilient are calling on landowners to seize this “incredible moment.”

“The dynamic over time of collaboration, cooperation and communication is what really works,” said Jon Westrup, owner of Fire Smart Durango, on working with landowners. He uses a flail mower to clear Gambel oak in some areas, allowing him to quickly remove decades worth of overgrown brush. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Slashing brush

Standing on a barren hillside once overgrown with dense Gambel oak, Westrup says his job, in essence, is to correct a century of unhampered growth.

Overgrown brush – the kind that would normally be wiped out by passing fires – must be cut down and removed. Dense tree stands need to be thinned so that leafy tops known as crowns cannot touch, preventing them from enabling a fire to grow. It is hard physical labor that can dramatically reduce the impact of a wildfire – but it also dramatically changes the look of the landscape.

In the 24 years since he started Fire Smart Durango, Westrup has learned to delicately balance mitigation priorities and what homeowners want from an aesthetic perspective.

A large Juniper tree along the road – “pretty hazardous,” he says – is an example. He wanted to remove the tree from the property belonging to Michelle Tuttle and her husband when he first worked on the property years ago. But they wanted to keep it, and Westrup did not push the matter.

Tucker Cocchiarella, left, and Patrick Haller, both with Fire Smart Durango, clear Gambel oak and brush on Wednesday out of the Timberline subdivision as part of a fire mitigation project. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Years later, Tuttle has given Westrup permission to use their private property to access and mitigate a 4-acre parcel of adjacent common land in the Timberline View homeowners association.

Much of the mitigation in La Plata County is taking place in subdivisions outside Durango, where homeowners seek a woodsy environment. Although some HOAs have leapt at opportunities to remove brush and thin tree stands, Westrup says it can be a slow process to build that trust.

“The dynamic over time of collaboration, cooperation and communication is what really works,” he said. “I think you balance the hazard reduction with talking about forest restoration and aesthetic improvement.”

Ron Duvall, the forestry/fire mitigation committee chairman of the Edgemont Highlands HOA, said that mitigators recommend completing half the work so that residents adjust to the new aesthetic of the land before they return to finish the job.

But for communities, such as Edgemont, built within Ponderosa pine forests, Duvall says wildfire is “not a matter of ‘if,’ it’s a matter of ‘when.’”

An ‘unbeatable’ opportunity

In 2021, La Plata County, the city of Durango and the Durango Fire Protection District entered into an intergovernmental agreement to create the Wildfire and Watershed Protection Fund.

The city and the county each contribute money to hire a fund coordinator, Alison Layman, as well as a grant coordinator.

Layman has secured two major grants – one through the Environmental Protection Agency via the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and the other through the Colorado Strategic Wildfire Action Program, via the Department of Natural Resources. The EPA grant is focused on preserving the Florida watershed, from which the city of Durango draws its water.

The grants mean that property owners in certain areas are eligible for reimbursement for up to 50% of the cost of their mitigation work.

“Getting 50% of it covered is unbeatable, because we were going to just pay full price,” said Jessica Le, who owns a home off County Road 240 near the Florida River. “We knew it needed to be done.”

Le said her 3-acre property would have reacted like “a matchstick” in the event of a fire. The grants covered $2,500 of her $5,000 mitigation bill.

The process is simple: residents fill out a form to request a wildfire risk assessment, seek bids for the work and inform Layman’s office of the cost. She will issue an award letter, depending on the scope of work and efficiency of the labor (which can cost anywhere between $2,500 and $30,000).

Once the work is done, an official will inspect the site to ensure compliance with home ignition zone recommendations, and the property owner will receive reimbursement.

The private landowner cost-share is a coordinated effort with HOAs, Layman said. For mitigation to be fully effective, it needs to stretch across the landscape, and not just individual parcels dotted across the county.

Layman and Westrup say that HOAs should be charging mitigation fees to fund the work – and it’s possible that work will become mandatory in the coming years.

But fire already acts as a proverbial stick, Westrup says. And grant funding is a bonus carrot.

The Wildfire Adapted Partnership, a Durango-based nonprofit seeking to build a more fire-resilient community, was founded after the Missionary Ridge Fire. Like the WWPF, the organization facilitates grant-funded projects.

“Funding isn’t around forever,” said Alex Graf, the western La Plata and San Juan county coordinator with WAP. “We were kind of in this incredible moment of funding being available and focused in southwest Colorado.”

Statewide codes and insurance regulations

Beyond just the safety benefits to a home or property and the fact that funding is available in limited amounts, there is another reason to perform mitigation work now: “It may be necessary in the future.”

Homeowners report that it is not uncommon for insurance companies to require the removal of certain branches or trees before they will cover a property.

Durango Fire Protection District firefighter Casey Bartlett feeds Gambel oak into the chipper in the Ute Pass Ranch subdivision on Friday. The chipper was purchased this year with state grant money. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

But a 2022 report prepared for the Colorado Division of Insurance by the consulting group Oliver Wyman found that the average homeowner insurance premium increased 51.7% between January 2019 and October 2022. The same report found that three quarters of carriers shrank exposure in Colorado in last year.

“Other carriers are reporting non-renewal initiatives that target a small percentage of Colorado homes with the most extreme levels of wildfire risk, particularly in instances where loss mitigation measures have not been taken,” the report read.

The law signed in May will create a Wildfire Resiliency Code Board, which will be assembled by the end of next month. In the following 21 months, the board will define the WUI and identify areas that are included within it, create building and home hardening regulations, and regulate the defensible space around a structure.

Studies have shown that retrofitting existing homes with fire-resistant “hardened” materials can be prohibitively expensive, although a recently established state grant fund seeks to change that. There have been mixed indicators regarding the cost increases associated with building new, fire-hardened homes.

Dustin Eldridge, with the Durango Fire Protection District, thins a stand of trees near the water treatment building in the Ute Pass subdivision. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

But insurers face the same challenge that Layman is trying to overcome: patchwork mitigation only goes so far.

“I think insurance companies, right now, they’re looking kind of both at macro and micro level,” said Assistant Commissioner of the Division of Insurance Vince Plymell. “They have sophisticated modeling programs that can take things down to a very small level, but of course, they’re looking at the communities as a whole.”

Standardized code for properties in the WUI across the state could address this. It could also help the state bring in more money for standardized infrastructure,PBS reports.

Individual local governments that have existing WUI codes will be able to apply for exemptions from the state code. La Plata County does not currently have such a code, although the Wildfire Advisory Board was created, in part, for this purpose in 2021.

Durango Fire Protection District firefighters from left, Peter Stockwell, William Jakob, Dustin Eldridge and Ben Perry remove Gambel oak trees on Friday in the Ute Pass Ranch subdivision. The wildfire mitigation work is made possible by grant money. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Although there has been some discussion about writing a county-specific WUI code before the state board enacts one, Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton said the county will wait to see the state’s first draft before taking action.

Officials have discussed trying to nominate DFPD Fire Marshal Karola Hanks for a seat on the board to ensure the region is represented. If the state’s policies are deemed to be out of line with the county’s needs, officials may spring into action to write a local code before July 1, 2025.


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