Wildfire mitigation in La Plata County getting push from residents after close calls

By Shannon Mullane, The Durango Herald via AP

DURANGO, Colo. (AP) — As the Missionary Ridge Fire raged in 2002, the Valley Fire, a second fire, broke out and destroyed six homes within hours near the Falls Creek Ranch subdivision north of Durango.

When residents returned after the Valley Fire, they saw red and green ribbons hanging on trees next to driveways and houses.

Red, they learned, meant firefighters were not able to defend their homes during the fire. The brush and trees were too overgrown for firefighters to access safely, said Paulette Church, a resident of 22 years, recalling a community discussion with fire officials after the fire.

“When we came home from the meeting that day, you could hear chainsaws all over the ranch,” Church said. “People were trimming up their junipers and oak brush. … Everyone was looking at what they had around their house very differently.”

Close calls with wildfire have spurred several La Plata County communities into action on wildfire risk mitigation. But getting a community to keep that momentum can be a puzzle – one that takes years, even decades, to solve.

About 3,500 structures burn each year in the United States by wildfire. Reducing risks, such as hazardous plant life near buildings, before a fire can help communities adapt to living with fire, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

But not everyone is ready or willing to invest the time, effort or money to mitigate. Three La Plata County community mitigation leaders say a mixture of know-how, a sense of community and neighborly persuasion can help.

“Changing attitudes is the most difficult thing you can do,” said Church, who has been nationally recognized for her role in the Falls Creek community mitigation effort.

More than 70,000 communities and 44 million homes nationally are at risk from wildfire in the wildland urban interface, or WUI, where vegetative fuels and the built environment meet.

That includes communities in La Plata County, like Durango. On wildfire risk maps, the city is surrounded by seas of reds and oranges indicating higher-than-average wildfire risk.

There are many ways to reduce that risk, such as creating community wildfire protection plans, defensible spaces around structures like homes and businesses, and carefully chosen construction materials and building codes, according to the Forest Service.

Many people move to subdivisions in the WUI, such as Falls Creek, Rafter J Association and Elk Stream Ranch, because they want to live within a wildland environment.

The residents value seeing wildlife inhabiting nearby trees or wandering through bushes, and they want to protect the “natural” forest landscape. Some resist cutting down plant life, even when it’s limited to hazardous fuels, according to mitigation leaders in some communities.

Several communities have bylaws prohibiting tree removal to preserve the forest and worry that assessing risks might deter people from moving to the area or negatively impact insurance rates.

Removing hazardous plant life can be too time-intensive or costly for some residents. Others are interested but do not know where to start.

“I think a lot of people are concerned that if they take too many trees out, it’s not going to have that forest feel or it’s not going to be healthy for the forest,” said Charlie Landsman, La Plata County coordinator for the Wildfire Adapted Partnership, a nonprofit that connects communities to mitigation resources.

“Really, when it comes down to it, fire mitigation is directly beneficial for the forest,” Landsman said. “The forests are over-densely populated because of our historical fire suppression.”

Wake-up call

In La Plata County, 85 community volunteers with the Wildfire Adapted Partnership, called firewise ambassadors, in 61 communities are trying to get their neighbors involved in pruning back hazardous plant life.

For three of those communities interviewed by The Durango Herald, it was a brush with wildfire that ultimately motivated residents to take action.

The Rafter J Association, about 7 miles southwest of Durango, is a subdivision within the Rafter J Ranch. Its 170 homes are built on ridgetops with views of gullies and ravines, said Lou Fontana, a firewise ambassador and resident of 21 years.

In 2017, the Lightner Creek Fire burned 412 acres within sight of Fontana’s home.

“You could see what was going on down there for most of the people on Ridge Road,” Fontana said. “At one point, they did a pre-evacuation order for Rafter J.”

Before the fire, fewer than 10 people in the Rafter J subdivision were regularly mitigating their land.

“The most we’ve had participate is 90 – which is good, but it’s still not 100% participation,” Fontana said.

Elk Stream Ranch, made up of 35 lots and 15 homes, sits in East Canyon along the border between Montezuma and La Plata counties. The residents created a community wildfire protection plan in 2008.

“I remember hearing about the local fire department saying they might not come into our canyon if they cannot safely do so,” said Gertine “Gem” Ganje-Boone, a firewise ambassador for Elk Stream since 2012. “Well, that’s a pretty good wake-up call. Then of course, there is nothing more convincing than an actual fire.”

In 2012, the Weber Fire swept through the area, burning 10,000 acres. Then came the 2,905-acre East Canyon Fire in 2020.

“I would say everyone that has a home participates in some form of fire mitigation,” Ganje-Boone said. “It’s much harder to convince vacant landowners to participate in fire mitigation, but we have had success with about half of the lots.”

In Durango, it was only after the 416 Fire burned 52,778 acres in 2018 that city and La Plata County leaders began several concerted efforts to leverage community, state and federal partnerships to address the area’s wildfire risk.

“There’s an incredible amount of work being done on pretty much every level, from homeowners to the city, county, state and federal level,” Landsman said. “One of the main limiting factors is there’s always going to be more to do. And there’s only so much capacity, people, time and energy to do the work on the ground.”

Falls Creek residents have volunteered thousands of hours since 2002 to mitigate fire risk on their land and roads. In 2018, that work helped firefighters redirect the 416 Fire. After nearly two decades, about 80% of the 96 households in Falls Creek remove plant life from communal property each year and about 90% of the landowners mitigate their own properties.

It’s a high percentage, but there are still “hold outs” who don’t want to mitigate, Church said.

“There’s only a couple,” Church said. “And they’ve done more than we ever did before.”

Finding solutions

The neighborhood mitigation leaders found success through a mix of community-building events, continuous outreach, financial assistance and results.

At community meetings, Rafter J brought in fire experts from the Durango Fire Protection District, the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service and Wildfire Adapted Partnership. Their first step: drafting a community preparedness assessment, Fontana said.

They focused on road improvements, then clearing the ignition zone around homes. They used grants to pay for mitigation projects, such as cutting and chipping scrub oak, which went over budget because of higher-than-expected participation, Fontana said.

“I would like to see it codified that you couldn’t sell property in any community in Southwest Colorado without proper mitigation being included,” he said. “You require a septic system, you require mitigation. Do it.”

In Elk Stream Ranch, ambassadors speak at annual meetings and hand out literature, continually bringing information back to the community. The association used a cost-share program to create fuel breaks along roads and is seeking grant funding to continue the project, said Ganje-Boone.

When it comes to creating a community consensus, Ganje-Boone said she focuses on the idea of “when,” not “if,” a wildfire will come.

“Being better prepared is key to saving lives and property,” she said. “Having conversations with your neighbors and volunteering to help has worked for our community.”

Falls Creek ambassadors, like Church, also continually send out educational information about reducing wildfire risk. The neighborhood brought in experts to help identify mitigation projects. Residents have used grants and other funding sources to complete thousands of hours of mitigation projects.

Landsman has worked with dozens of communities on fire mitigation projects with the Wildfire Adapted Partnership. Addressing concerns, he said, comes down to having open and honest conversations with people.

“Learning what their concerns are, instead of going in there and saying, ‘You need to do this, and here are the reasons you need to do it,’” he said.

Church’s secret to success: the potluck.

“After you work together on a project like that, everyone is really tired, hot and dirty,” she said. “You come together and you celebrate … and you see the results immediately. It builds an enthusiasm and a shared vision for what a healthy forest looks like.”

Seeing the results of mitigation projects – that did not include clear-cutting the forest, as some neighbors feared – helped convince more people to participate over time.

“People thought … our forest would never burn. There was no risk. When they saw the Valley Fire and Missionary Ridge burn, there was risk,” Church said. “Seeing people they respected do the work, they realized ‘Yeah, I don’t want to be the neighbor to burn my neighbor’s house down. I want to do my share.’”

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