Grand County firefighters assist with a prescribed burn in Kansas. Credit: Grand Lake Fire Department

Topic: Meetings / Events Type: Meeting / Event

2017 Colorado Wildland Fire Conference: From Awareness to Action

Authors: Schelly Olson

The first Colorado Wildland Fire Conference (CWFC) occurred in 1997. A small group of local, county and state fire service personnel saw the need to develop a conference that provided an opportunity for professionals, policymakers and landowners to collectively advance fire adapted communities in Colorado. Almost 20 years later, the City of Pueblo was the site for the 2017 CWFC, and I was one of the fortunate participants. I was there representing both the Grand County Wildfire Council and Fire Adapted Colorado (FACO); I’ll give more context regarding both of those organizations later on. I was joined by not only fire and emergency service personnel but also by realtors, developers, planners, insurers, community leaders, policy makers, contractors and other wildfire mitigation specialists across the state and country!

Framing the Colorado Wildland Fire Conference: Deliberate Leadership and Communication

The event kicked off with a keynote address from Shawna Legarza, director for fire and aviation management for the USDA Forest Service. I appreciated her explanation of her leader’s intent, which focuses on three principles:

1) Engaged leadership,
2) Alignment of communication and
3) Self-leadership.

As wildfire practitioners, we know that we cannot accomplish our goals without extremely engaged communities and leaders. Things will not be done effectively or efficiently without consistent messaging and buy in. We also know that fatigued, burnt out or unmotivated leaders will have a difficult time leading their teams and reaching their objectives. This was a great message to introduce the conference.

Fire Adapted Colorado

FACO was the fiscal agent for the 2017 CWFC. FACO is a statewide network aimed at creating safer and more fire resilient communities. At the conference, FACO launched its membership campaign, to strengthen its connections with other wildfire-centric organizations and practitioners and to begin exploring co-learning opportunities.

Colorado FAC practitioners: see the end of this post for membership information.*

Fire Adapted Colorado's board of directors at the Colorado Wildland Fire Conference

Fire Adapted Colorado’s board of directors.

Grand County Wildfire Council

As I mentioned, I was attending CWFC as a representative of the Grand County Wildfire Council. Our mission is “through education and action, promote wildland fire prevention, preparedness, mitigation and survival.” Currently, our programs focus on community chipping days, hazardous fuels reduction and Firewise communities.

Speaker presenting a PowerPoint

The Grand County Wildfire Council presenting information about wildfire ownership and responsibility to the Grand County board of commissioners. Credit: Schelly Olson, Grand County Wildfire Council

So What Did I Learn?

The theme for the 2017 Colorado Wildland Fire Conference was “Moving from Awareness to Action, Messaging to Mitigation and Words to Work.” It was borrowed from a FAC Net interview with the USDA Forest Service’s national FAC program manager, Pam Leschak. In that interview, Pam stated that “we must move from awareness to action, messaging to mitigation and words to work.”  We all know that it is the on-the-ground mitigation that reduces our wildfire risk.

Presentations during the conference ranged from mitigation to planning to evacuation, and all of the presentations can be viewed online.

So how were my Grand County Wildfire Council colleagues and I going to take everything that we learned at the conference and return to Grand County to get some real work done? And how would the council, a small non-profit, fund the projects we wanted to tackle? Luckily, the information I gathered at the CWFC identified a clear list of action items for the Grand County Wildfire Council:

  • We will begin to use systematic data collection to develop and facilitate fire adaptation.

If we don’t understand our community’s perception of their wildfire risk, how can we address the barriers to mitigation that we are experiencing? Does our public believe that they have low risk because firefighters will quickly and safely suppress every fire? A systematic data collection process, like the one that West Region Wildfire Council and the Wildfire Research (WiRē) Team shared, will help us understand those questions.

  • We plan to increase our engagement and partnerships with public and private stakeholders.

At the conference, we recognized that we need to evaluate our coalition and make sure that the right participants are at the table. We plan to connect with existing groups, such as watershed stakeholders and investigate how our missions and strengths might align with one another’s.

  • We aim to design a community ambassador program that fosters local champions of wildfire risk reduction.

We enjoyed learning about the FireWise of Southwest Colorado’s Neighborhood Ambassador Program. The program trains neighborhood-based volunteers (or “ambassadors”) who lead fire adaptation efforts in their communities. We think this model could work well in Grand County and are excited to try it out.

  • We plan to implement more prescribed fire projects.

We also recognized that we need to put more fire on private lands, especially those bordering subdivisions. We are planning several controlled burns on private lands, including boundary properties between ski resorts and neighborhoods. This summer, we will perform public outreach, and we hope to implement this fall.

  • Lastly, we will reduce wildfire risk by implementing land-use planning tools at the county level.

Grand County’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation plan calls for the adoption of “wildfire regulations” related to building materials and vegetation management. It also includes the adoption of the International Wildland-Urban Interface Code. We need to work with our county’s community development department and policymakers to begin implementing these policies.

We know that accomplishing all of this is going to require a lot of work and a lot of fortitude. Nevertheless, we will keep on keepin’ on, using whatever tools we have in our toolbox, learning and sharing ideas with other practitioners in Colorado, and moving Grand County toward increased fire adaptation, one day at a time, one community at a time.

*Colorado practitioners: FACO Membership Information

FACO has three levels of membership, Board, Core and Affiliate. Board members will be responsible for helping FACO carry out its mission-related objectives by being involved and participating on a working board. Core members have access to several benefits, including a peer learning workspace and in-person workshops; these members are expected to contribute their expertise and time to the network. Affiliate membership is available for people and organizations who want a less interactive relationship with FACO. These members will primarily receive information from FACO. There is no cost to become a member of FACO; however, there are expectations of participation, especially for Board and Core members. If you would like to be considered for membership, please visit http://www.fireadaptedco.org for more information.

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