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How counties are fighting the flames (Local Tips & Reviews)

Adapting to the inevitable

Up and down the Front Range and in mountain counties crowded with vacation homes and telecommuters, fire planners like Jeffco’s are trying anything and everything to make 2023 safer across millions of acres of where wild areas but up against cities and towns. They are debating new firefighting taxes or spending ones that recently passed. They’re expanding homegrown Hotshot crews. Adding remote cameras monitored by artificial intelligence to spot flare-ups. Locking down private helicopter time to be ready for emergencies. 

A firefighter watches as a wildfire consumes a house.

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The most telling change, though, may be philosophical. Adapting to the inevitable, and living with fire every single day — from prevention to suppression to recovery — is now everyday policy. 

Seeing smoke billow from a nearby prescribed burn from your kitchen window is part of living in a fire-adapted ecosystem as mitigation experts start fires they say are necessary to reduce the catastrophic effects of wildfire. Public awareness campaigns — from social media to field trips into national forests with U.S. Forest Service rangers — work to help the community understand what it means to live with fire. 

But living amid the threat of wildfire requires action closer to home, too. Record participation in chipping programs in El Paso County as people clear shrubs and branches from next to their homes could be a sign of more residents willing to share the responsibility to protect their families and communities. 

One county is for the first time working on crafting a fire code that would require new homes in wildfire-prone areas to adhere to safe building standards ranging from roof materials and venting design to moving flammable mulch away from structures. Other counties are tuning up their existing codes in hopes of sticking with local solutions and staving off statewide standards from above

This year’s above-average snowpack has many fire officials smiling, knowing that extra moisture will likely buy them time they can dedicate to mitigation work. But a handful of gust-driven grass and timber fires forced evacuations in Aurora, Morrison, Park and Teller counties and other locations Thursday and Friday, even as deep snowbanks taunted firefighters from high Front Range peaks.

A healthy snowpack doesn’t shroud the reality that one week of dry, windy days in July — or late March — can quickly move the firefighting burden from Mother Nature to human preparation.

 

Boulder County

Standing in front of a thin stand of lodgepole pines west of Eldorado Springs on a recent Friday afternoon, a fuels expert with the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests answered the questions of two dozen residents curious about the science behind the prescribed burns that are expected to ignite in their backyards in the weeks to come — if weather conditions are right.

“Will these burns affect camping?” a woman wearing a pink bucket hat and a water bottle slung over her shoulder asked while sitting cross-legged in the dirt. “What keeps it from getting out of control into something bigger?” another woman standing behind her asked.

The face-to-face conversation near Gross Reservoir, offering residents the opportunity to build trust with the experts planning and conducting prescribed burns, is one the Forest Service hopes to replicate along the Front Range. 

“So everyone is on the same page of what we’re doing, what we’re not doing,” Kevin McLaughlin, the Boulder district ranger, said. “We’re OK with hearing the hard questions.” 

With a decent amount of snow on the ground and safe conditions, approved by the National Weather Service and state health department, mitigation crews burn piles of woody debris to clear forested areas of hazardous fuels that could make a wildfire too hot and too intense for firefighters to control, said Luke Finn, an assistant fuels captain. He explained that after digging through the snow with their hands, crews light a slash pile using a hand-held propane torch, lighting on the down-wind side. They walk through the area afterward to check all burn piles are under control.

A two-person crew can burn up to 1,000 piles in a single day, he said. The prescribed burns in Forsythe Canyon at the northwestern edge of Gross Reservoir will be completed in sections, each about 130 acres or less, over three to five years to mimic the effects of natural wildfire.

The Forest Service’s work goes hand-in-hand with efforts at the county level, which officials hope to ramp up this year by hiring 12 employees dedicated to wildfire mitigation work across Boulder County.

The county is funneling nearly $1 million into the positions, which include a forester, a wildfire mitigation specialist, a grant administrator, and several administrative positions to support the work, said Jim Webster, who coordinates the Wildfire Partners program. The county is also hiring a team of people to work directly with the community to educate about defensible space, how to harden their homes and prepare for wildfires, as well as a person to staff the community forestry sort yard, and a chipping coordinator, to help encourage homeowners to remove and chip wood and other debris on their own land, he said.

“We’re working to increase the pace and scale of wildfire mitigation efforts in forest and grassland communities, and then develop new programs to address climate driven wildfire risk,” Webster said. 

Nine of the positions will be funded by a wildfire sales and use tax, which voters overwhelmingly approved last fall. 

Before the Marshall fire incinerated nearly 1,000 homes in Louisville and Superior on Dec. 30, Boulder County’s focus was in the foothills, where the county has historically seen most of its devastating wildfires. 

“After the Marshall fire, we’re expanding our geographic scope to look at the entire county,” Webster said.

Larimer County

While Larimer County fire officials echo other Colorado leaders in their desire to bolster fire prevention and recovery for 2023, they’re not stinting on the actual firefighting duties. 

Larimer will boost its full-time fire jumping team by a third for this summer, going to eight dedicated wildland firefighters from six, Larimer County Emergency Operations Director Justin Whitesell said. 

“They are full-time, 100% initial attack suppression forces that are ready to go at any time,” he said. “They are trained, and that’s their primary job.”

The county also signs up 70 on-call wildland firefighters who are temporary employees of the sheriff’s office, often college students or people with jobs in other seasons. On a new fire, Larimer tries to send out a handful of the on-call firefighters with the full-time team to aid a fast response. In past years, Larimer has had as many as 75 temporary positions but also as few as 40, so “70 is a good number for us,” Whitesell said. 

Drones that can get in the air and help spot the boundaries of moving fires and support firefighter deployment or evacuation notices are also crucial tools. Larimer County hopes to add to its fleet. 

“We are looking at an additional drone, like a fixed-wing drone, that can spend more time in the air instead of just 20 to 30 minutes,” he said. The bigger drones can stay in the air for three to four hours. 

Larimer County is also beefing up the prevention side. The county has long coordinated with Colorado State Forest Service officials, the U.S. Forest Service and watershed agencies on thinning and defensible space, Whitesell said. But with so many agencies putting personnel and money into prevention in the wake of the Marshall, Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires, cooperation is more important than ever. 

The county is hiring a full-time Wildfire Partner program coordinator for 2023. That person’s job, Whitesell said, is “making sure that we’re all trying to accomplish the same thing and not doing it independently.” 

Douglas County

Douglas County is not shy about using its relatively full government coffers to build the top local aerial firefighting operation in the state. 

“We’re the only county in Colorado that supports our own exclusive-use helicopter suppression program,” county Emergency Management Deputy Director Mike Alexander said. Firefighting officials will ask the Douglas County Commissioners to approve a contract for 153 days of exclusive use in 2023 with a company that will park its helicopter and pilots at a county facility and be available every day to transport people, equipment and fire suppressants. 

Exclusive use, rather than on-demand, ensures Douglas County can get what it needs at a moment’s notice, officials said. 

Learning from confusion in Boulder County about wildfire and evacuation alerts to homeowners, Douglas County has also set 2023 goals for communication with residents, Alexander said. 

“We have really been pushing hard to get an increase in our CodeRED registration throughout the county,” Alexander said. “We’re taking active targeted steps to make sure we get more people signed up.”

The county is also spreading word about an expanded homeowner fire mitigation program made possible by Douglas County’s share of federal American Rescue Plan Act funding from 2021. Homeowners with approved projects have to pay only 25% of the cost for tree limbing, landscaping or other wildfire prevention work, said Jill Welle, a county fire mitigation specialist. 

A plane drops red fire retardant near homes.
Grass fires threatened the meadows and homes near Chatridge Court and U.S. 85 three times in five years, and firefighters work hard to keep flames from moving over the hill into thousands of homes in Highlands Ranch. This photo is are from the 2016 Chatridge fire. (South Metro Fire Rescue file photos)

The county uses the ARPA funding as a match for the state Forest Service’s existing wildfire mitigation  program, removing dead or endangered vegetation that contributes to fire spread. Like many counties, Douglas has hosted periodic epidemics of pests like the tussock moth that leave dangerous stands of dead and fallen trees.

“We’re really trying to leverage all of these financial resources to get more work done on the ground,” Welles said. 

Douglas County will also support broader use of prescribed burns to reduce wildfire fuels and create more defensible boundaries for densely populated areas bordering open space like Highlands Ranch, with 100,000 residents, County Commissioner Abe Laydon said. Some people may have vivid pictures in their heads of a federal prescribed burn that went out of control in northern New Mexico in 2022, torching 341,000 acres and hundreds of homes, Laydon acknowledged. But everyone in Douglas County also has stark memories of the Chatridge 3 fire in December 2021 sweeping east from a parched meadow with entire neighborhoods just yards away as tankers buzzed over school grounds and dropped retardant. 

“I’ll be candid, there is some pushback on controlled burns. That tends to be a bit of a hot-button issue, no pun intended,” Laydon said. “But it can be done well, and we have to think about what happens if we’re not doing controlled burns, and we’re not being proactive about mitigating that kindling.”

Jefferson County

Self-reliance. And learning to live with fire — even to love it, if it’s the right kind. Those are two of the mottos guiding Jefferson County emergency officials as they shape lessons of the past few years into a plan for 2023. 

While building out a new Open Space early fire-response team for the county, Jeffco is also redoubling efforts to explain the need for prescribed burns and rigorous forest thinning to a sometimes skeptical public. 

Jefferson County Commissioners in March agreed to spend $950,000 on an 18-month rewrite of emergency blueprints that include their state-mandated Community Wildfire Protection Plan. The community process will improve plans that apply to other hazards as well: Evacuation routes are just as vital during flooding as they are during wildfires. 

The consultants will also incorporate lessons from the Marshall fire, Jeffco officials said, including altering the categories of “unburnable” spaces marked on previous plans. In jumping over the multi-lane concrete U.S. 36 and crossing vast parking lots, Marshall proved just how much of the suburbs are burnable, and therefore may require landscape-altering defense zones. 

Jeffco residents and leaders need to agree on that “understanding of consequence,” Emergency Management Director Hal Grieb said. “Because again, there’s consequences to planning, zoning and codifying things, just as there’s consequences to moving into a high hazard and vulnerable area. There are consequences that all parties need to understand and work together towards doing the best we can to live in those places.”

Some Jeffco neighbors have objected to the county’s recent embrace of aggressive forest thinning on county open space, meant to remove fuel from running fires while making room for the return of native tree and wildlife species. They say favorite trails and views are ruined, while others lament the loss of older-growth trees for unproven fire prevention theories. 

Communicating about thinning and prescribed burn plans is now a permanent, essential duty of all Colorado fire officials, Grieb and Shephard say. The public needs to accept — and officials need to practice delivering — the message of living with good and bad fire

“It is literally an ever-growing hazard,” Grieb said. “And we understand that we will never cut our way out of wildland fire. Lightning strikes, Mother Nature, unintentional sparks. Wildland fire is a natural part of Colorado. So it’s really having to acknowledge that just like tornadoes in Tornado Alley, or hurricanes from the ocean, it is a natural hazard that we can mitigate, but we’ll never be able to truly control.”

Grand County

Counties facing equal wildfire threats to their edge communities report broadly unequal resources to strengthen their defenses. 

Boulder County’s wildfire-dedicated sales tax slice brings in $11 million a year for the Front Range county. 

In Grand County, just over the Continental Divide and home to the Colorado River water diverted for use by most Boulder County communities, a smaller tax base means a scrappier battle for wildfire funds. Residents have conflicting priorities, even at the origin site for the second-largest Colorado wildfire, the East Troublesome fire of 2020. That disaster burned 193,000 acres, hundreds of homes, and threatened Grand Lake before burning out in Rocky Mountain National Park. 

Grand County’s fire mitigation work in 2023 will include extensive prescribed burns and thinning in a cooperative effort by Arapaho Roosevelt National Forests crews and local agencies. This planning document shows areas initially proposed south of Hot Sulphur Springs. Massive wildfires like Grand County’s East Troublesome fire helped get Colorado’s Front Range listed on a federal “crisis” mitigation list of 10 areas around the nation. (U.S. Forest Service)

One major lesson from East Troublesome, Grand County Emergency Management Director Alexis Kimbrough said, was to knit together more local resources for everything from prevention, to suppression, to recovery. Grand County gladly accepts outside fire help, and is heavily involved with a massive U.S. Forest Service thinning and prescribed burn effort across the county. But residents feel that learning to live with modern fire reality means stepping up, Kimbrough said. 

It’s “the idea of social capital, and really building a community that can rely on itself and its own resources,” Kimbrough said. “Building a community outreach program has been my priority, whether that be a response team or whether that just be a huge volunteer base.” 

The county will spend part of the spring debating its update to the state-required Community Wildfire Protection Plan, which sets priorities for fire mitigation, suppression and recovery. The public may comment on the draft starting Monday

Some county voters want to include local financial resources in that push for homegrown preparedness. A Grand County outdoor recreation and open space tax is up for renewal this year, and county leaders want residents to weigh in on the idea of adding firefighting grants to the allowed projects. Others raised concerns that the seemingly endless demand for fire mitigation projects in the heavily forested county would come to dominate a tax fund originated for biking trails and parks. 

Grand County also wants to increase a dedicated wildland firefighting team shared by two local fire protection districts to nine full-timers from six, Kimbrough said. 

U.S. Forest Service Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests

If mountain and foothills travel this year bring more tree thinning and burning slash piles into view, that’s evidence of a steep ramp-up of a federal wildfire crisis plan

Colorado’s Front Range in 2022 was declared one of 10 national crisis areas where U.S. officials would concentrate billions of dollars in wildfire mitigation spending from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act. This is the second year of the plan, Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forest spokesperson Reid Armstrong said, and the Forest Service is stepping up its woodlands treatment as well as coordination with Front Range counties on their own plans. 

In 2022, federal authorities named 10 wildfire “crisis” areas worthy of additional U.S. planning and spending, including Colorado’s Front Range. This map shows some of the other crisis areas, the list of which was expanded in early 2023 with additional federal spending. (U.S. Department of Agriculture)
This snapshot of the U.S.-designated Front Range wildfire crisis area shows the challenging layers of land ownership where dangers must be coordinated and mitigated, from Forest Service property to state forests, to county and local open space, and private land mixed in. (U.S. Forest Service interactive map)

“Due to the complexity of the land ownership on the Front Range, it’s really critical that we plan our work across boundaries,” Armstrong said. 

The interagency Gross Reservoir tour, complete with hard questions from wary residents, will play out soon in other Arapaho-Roosevelt focus areas, from along St. Vrain Creek to danger areas in the Upper South Platte River region. One geeked-out fire planning concept the Forest Service will explain on tours is “PODs,” for Potential Operational Delineations. It’s a mouthful for the goal of exploiting useful boundaries: a streambed, a road, an unforested ridge. Those boundaries can make prescribed burns safer, as well as create buffers in a real wildfire. 

“We’re looking at how fire moves and how water works, and we’re looking at that whole watershed and planning really collaboratively across boundaries,” Armstrong said.  

The plans require openly acknowledging public worries about prescribed burns, but not running away from them. 

“Using fire is going to be really important in our strategy,” Armstrong said. Robust outreach efforts mean “not just communicating through a legal notice in the newspaper, but getting out there and stomping the ground with them.”

One story the Forest Service uses to remind the public is that the Cameron Peak fire in Larimer County didn’t burn through the homes in the Red Feather Lakes area “because of the work we’d done there,” Armstrong said. The new federal money helps the Forest Service hire “prevention teams” of wildlife biologists and forest growth experts, to supplement traditional fire suppression teams. 

When given the chance, Armstrong said, neighbors are likely to accept that with prescribed burns “there’s always a risk, but the risk and the impact of smoke during this time of year is something that we can control better than we can an unplanned fire in August in that same area.” 

Forest Service educators are also trying to communicate a relatively new danger that comes from repeat fires, and climate change that has altered the way scorched areas grow back when exposed to unrelenting sun and heat. Researchers see that in studying the ground from the 2002 Hayman fire that dried up land north from Lake George. Uncontrolled wildfires burning through brush allowed to build up over time can result in forests becoming permanent grasslands. 

“We’re on the heels of 2020, where 25% of the Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest burned in two of the largest wildfires in Colorado history,” Armstrong said. “So I think people here understand what’s at risk.”

La Plata County

La Plata County knows new wildfire building codes are on the way and are necessary. But officials there believe they can sell a local model faster than any statewide mandates that might be issued from the Capitol in Denver. 

A top priority for La Plata’s wildfire advisory board this year is drafting a recommendation for a countywide building code that’s tailored to local homeowners with the hope that it gains support from the community, said Alison Layman, the county’s wildfire and watershed mitigation coordinator. Recent mapping showed the entire county, which surrounds Durango, faced very high risk if a wildfire sparked, she said. 

“I think there’s a lot of local pride and so when it’s something that people associate with coming from Denver, there’s not that buy-in and people immediately put up a little bit of a barrier,” Layman said of a possible statewide code. “And so what the commissioners hope to accomplish is getting more support for the idea because they know going that direction is good and instead of people immediately getting defensive about it, trying to make it from the ground up.”

The board also recently crafted public service announcements, choosing specific messages for each month to teach residents how to properly dispose of ash from their wood-burning stoves, for example, or reminding people to sign up to receive emergency notifications. 

“Education is a huge focus on everything that the wildfire advisory board incorporates into every kind of decision and action that we bring forward to the commissioners,” Layman said. 

The county just received a grant to pay for crews from Colorado Department of Corrections to do roadside mitigation work along the major evacuation routes, she said. Two other grants, totaling close to $1 million, will be used to offer reimbursements to homeowners as incentives to assess wildfire risk on their land and create defensible space around their homes. Before the county could even advertise for the program, more than 30 homes were assessed for wildfire risk and one person completed a project, Layman said. 

“People just have caught wind of we’re doing these projects and then reached out to get involved,” she said, “and so that’s super promising.” 

Eagle County

Climate change is driving the way Eagle County officials look at how to fight wildfires.

In the past two years, the county has added seven positions to meet the demands of mitigation work and amplify its efforts in teaching the community how to become more resilient against fire, said Eric Lovgren, community mitigation manager. 

“If we’re talking about fires that are capable of consuming 100,000 acres in a 12-hour period, that are able to burn up thousands of homes in the same amount of time that are being driven by 100-mph hurricane-force winds — every year it will seem like a new record is being set,” Lovgren said. “I think it’s important that we change our approach and look at things more on a landscape level.”

Collaboration is also top of mind for those working to protect people living along the edge of forestland in Eagle County. A new group, called the Eagle County Wildfire Collaborative, aims to unite those who are working to reduce wildfire risk, he said. 

The county added a coordinator for the collaborative, three firefighters on the wildland fire team, a deputy emergency manager and a mitigation specialist, he said. A new staff member in the communications department will help the county send out wildfire safety messages in English and Spanish. 

To keep up with demands of the community chipping program, where crews help homeowners dispose of the debris collected around their home, Vail’s fire department added a person to its crew, he said. 

If the historic summer of 2020, when more acres were charred in Colorado than ever before, is an indication of what’s to come, counties must adapt with new approaches to fight wildfire.

Lovgren remembers the heavy smoke that filled the sky as hundreds of firefighters filled the county for weeks straight fighting Grizzly Creek fire in Glenwood Canyon. Then came East Troublesome, which chewed through nearly 200,000 acres in Grand and Larimer counties

“It’s the changing nature of fire behavior in an era of climate change and megadrought that I think kind of has gotten everybody’s attention — that traditional methods aren’t going to be effective,” he said. “And we need to really step up our game if we’re going to move the dial on these big fires and prevent catastrophic loss both to the watershed and to people’s homes and lives.”

El Paso County 

An ember wouldn’t have to travel far from Austin Bluffs Open Space before it landed on a juniper bush and ignited one of the homes backed up to the forested edge of the park in northern Colorado Springs. To the southwest, a wildfire in Stratton Open Space, where there are several water tanks, would jeopardize people’s drinking water.

“When we have a wildfire, it’s not necessarily the forefront of that fire that worries us, but a wildfire in itself is going to create its own weather and kind of do whatever it wants,” Ashley Whitworth, wildfire mitigation program administrator, said. “Any wildfire will have embers that will come off of the fire, and those embers can go miles and miles ahead of the fire. And that is what concerns us.”

If awarded a $3 million grant from the U.S. Forest Service this year, fire officials in the Pikes Peak region plan to start a five-year mitigation project targeting open spaces including Austin Bluffs, Blodgett and Stratton open spaces, Quail Lake and Cheyenne Mountain State parks, Whitworth said. 

The grant money would be matched by the city, using money collected by a ballot measure passed in 2021 that allows Colorado Springs to spend up to $20 million on citywide and regional wildfire mitigation and prevention programs. 

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It’s just one of the projects recommended by Colorado Springs’ wildfire mitigation advisory board, which started meeting last year. The mayor-appointed board makes recommendations to the Colorado Springs Fire Department and includes foresters and wildland fire experts from the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs Utilities, Colorado State Forest Service, Fort Carson Fire, the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office and Manitou Springs, as well as community members. 

“Sharing the responsibility” is a tagline for the fire department and one the community seems to be taking seriously. 

Last year, the fire department picked up and disposed of piles of tree branches and hazardous vegetation from more than 7,000 homes (a record for the department), up from 4,000 that they service in a typical year, Whitworth said. They also saw an uptick in requests for on-site consultations with wildfire mitigation experts on how to prepare homes for fire, more than 150 from the year before, and more than 27,000 people watched streamed town hall meetings led by the fire department last year to teach people about living with wildfire.

After the Marshall fire, the fire department immediately started getting calls from homeowners to have them come out to their property to pick up debris, she said. 

“So it’s definitely on the forefront of people’s minds just with all the different fires that have been happening in Colorado, but also around all of our surrounding states,” Whitworth said. “Just because they know that it can happen here and it can happen anytime.”

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