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Power in numbers? Three Durango-area entities to tackle wildfire mitigation

Group seeks to expand, accelerate efforts to alleviate threats
The city of Durango, La Plata County and the Durango Fire Protection District have created the intergovernmental Wildfire and Watershed Protection Fund to accelerate landscape-scale wildfire mitigation efforts and forest restoration in the county. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

The city of Durango, La Plata County and the Durango Fire Protection District will work together on sweeping wildfire mitigation efforts to reduce the risk that wildfires continue to pose to the wildland-urban interface.

County commissioners joined an intergovernmental agreement between the three parties on Tuesday at its regular business meeting, officially creating the Wildfire and Watershed Protection Fund.

“If you look at what’s going on around the region, the Forest Service has some work, the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) has some work, there’s other players dealing with fire mitigation,” said City Councilor Barbara Noseworthy, who has been leading the city’s involvement in the project. “Right now, we might describe it as a bunch of patches and what we really want to make is a quilt.”

“I think it’s a great example of three entities coming together to address a problem that would be very difficult to solve single-handedly,” she said. “But by the three of us working (together), we have more scale and possibilities.”

The Wildfire and Watershed Protection Fund will work with private and public landowners and state and federal agencies to expand and accelerate landscape-scale wildfire mitigation efforts and forest restoration in the county.

The agreement places a particular emphasis on the protection of watersheds through proactive land management.

Durango Fire Protection District Deputy Chief Randy Black said that’s because of the threat that wildfire poses to water resources.

“Primarily, the city of Durango is using the Florida River (for the majority of its water supplies),” he said. “If you have a big fire that kicks off up in the Florida River area between Lemon and town and that either shuts down or ruins that water supply, that has an enormous impact on the city of Durango. That’s not just quality of life. It’s economic, it’s business, it’s recreation. Everything ends up being affected by that (fire).”

“We saw it with the 416 Fire where the aftermath can be as bad as the fire itself,” Black said. “You’re dealing for months and years afterwards with mudslides, contaminated water or damaged water systems and watersheds critical to the community that have some permanent damage to them.”

The Wildfire and Watershed Protection Fund will feature an advisory committee with two members from each organization and a seventh member the group will select together.

The county will also hire a Wildfire and Watershed Protection Fund coordinator and grants specialist who will lead the fund, coordinating mitigation efforts and pursuing funding to expand projects.

“There’s significant resources out there, but we needed a mechanism to apply for them and manage them,” Noseworthy said.

“That intergovernmental agreement is really designed to maximize the use of everybody’s money,” Black said. “We’re all working together on a project and no one agency is having to fund it all. We have that shared responsibility.”

In 2006, the county created the Community Wildfire Protection Plan, which identified community resources and goals for wildfire mitigation.

Those goals included:

  • Reducing the wildfire risk in the wildland-urban interface.
  • Increasing education and public involvement in wildfire prevention.
  • Reducing the ignitability of structures.
  • Strengthening tools for local governments and fire departments to encourage Firewise policies and practices.
  • Increasing the number of fuel reduction projects on federal lands in high-risk areas.

The city of Durango, La Plata County and the Durango Fire Protection District worked on a 2018 hazard mitigation plan that found almost 4,000 residents lived in high wildfire risk zones and about 2,500 lived in moderate risk zones.

The plan identified about $517 million in city of Durango assets and $2.6 billion in county assets at risk of wildfires.

The new Wildfire and Watershed Protection Fund pools resources and allows the three entities to work more closely to identify and execute mitigation projects, Black and Noseworthy said.

The county will now look for a fund coordinator and the three parties are already starting to identify priority projects, many at the critical wildland-urban interface where homes and other developments meet with forests and unoccupied wildlands.

What matters, though, is that these coordinated mitigation projects are beginning to expand.

“Any mitigation is good mitigation,” Black said.


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