May is Fire Prevention and Education Month in southwest Colorado and this spring is the 10th anniversary of the 70,000-acre Missionary Ridge wildfire that destroyed 56 homes in La Plata County and burned parts of Archuleta County.
Wildfire has been part of the southwestern landscape for centuries. Subdivisions and towns are a more recent addition to the picture, an addition that has put many people’s lives and properties at risk. The Missionary Ridge fire started on June 9, 2002. Following that devastating fire, FireWise of Southwest Colorado was born. This is a grass-roots organization whose purpose is to protect lives and property from wildfire damage.
This is quite a goal for a nonprofit, non-governmental agency. What makes it all possible is the Neighborhood Ambassador program. Ambassadors are volunteers who educate and mobilize their neighbors to plan and turn those plans into action in order to be better prepared for the inevitability of wildfire.
Currently, there are 105 ambassadors in La Plata, Montezuma and Archuleta counties. Those ambassadors are truly unsung heroes. They realize the threat that wildfire poses for all of us and they have stepped forward to help in their individual neighborhoods and subdivisions.
FireWise gives them education and support as they identify threats and make plans to lessen the chances of wildfire damage.
One of the most useful tools at their disposal is the Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP). These plans are a direct result of the Healthy Forest Restoration Act signed by President George W. Bush in 2003.
After 100 years of suppressing fires in our forests, the government realized that without the mitigation effects of periodic fire, our forests have become overloaded with fuel. Many have grown too thick and are filled with undergrowth that serves as a ladder to move fire from the ground up into the tree crowns. As we have all seen over the last few years, a crown fire is difficult and often impossible to contain or control. Fires of that magnitude can send storms of firebrands raining down on homes miles from the blaze.
The Act encourages the development of a CWPP in order to be prepared for wildfire. Communities work in collaboration with many partner agencies that help them develop and implement that plan. The U.S. Forest Service/ BLM, Colorado State Forest Service, Office of Emergency Management (Archuleta County Sheriff’s Department) and the Pagosa Fire Protection District are some of the main partners here in Archuleta County.
With the help of detailed maps, and guided by agency partners, ambassadors and their volunteer committees have been able to determine where their subdivision interfaces with lands that have wildfire potential. This area is called the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI).
Mitigation efforts and emergency action plans can then be established that are in the best interest of the community. One of the true values of these CWPPs is that they are developed from the ground up. Individual members of the community grow this plan in conjunction with the local experts. Priorities are set by the people who have the most at stake with help from people with the most experience in this locale.
Archuleta County has become very active in the FireWise program. Currently, there are ambassadors representing Aspen Springs, Crowley Ranch, Echo Canyon Ranch, Loma Linda, the Lower Blanco, Spring Valley and Timber Ridge. Many of these groups are well into developing their respective CWPPs.
Loma Linda and Echo Canyon have been collaborating on their plans and working on an emergency access and egress route between their adjoining communities. Spring Valley and Crowley Ranch are working closely together also. Timber Ridge is using a FireWise matching grant to mitigate some of their common areas.
Representatives of the Colorado State Forest Service and the U.S. Forest Service have been on tours of these subdivisions and have helped the residents learn what areas of forest or wildland pose a threat and how to mitigate that risk.
Pagosa Fire Protection District personnel have educated people about structural ignitions and pointed out potential risks and remedies. Many homeowners were shown where and what they can do on their property to make it FireWise. Residents are learning how to prepare their home and landscape in ways that will increase the chances that their home could escape wildfire damage even if firefighters don’t get to their house quickly.
These communities have set up committees to assess their risk and plan ways to minimize that risk. They are developing emergency action plans to be better prepared in the event of a wildfire. Neighbors are learning who among them may need assistance if an evacuation is called for. They are well on their way to having a living, working plan to safeguard themselves and their property both now and in the years to come. A community having a wildfire protection plan is also in a very good position to apply for grants to help defray mitigation costs.
Though CWPPs are not mandatory, communities that have developed plans have seen wonderful benefits, including community cohesiveness around a common goal, more homeowners taking action on their private property and having a tool that they can share with new homeowners. FireWise of Southwest Colorado is dedicated to educating, supporting and helping to implement efforts to protect lives and property from wildfire in the communities here in our area.
If you would like to learn more or, better yet, if you are ready to help your community prepare for wildfire, you can contact Bill Trimarco, Archuleta County FireWise Coordinator, at 264-0430 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit the Southwest Colorado FireWise website, www.southwestcoloradofires.org.