May 21, 2015
Building Mitigation Contractor Capacity in Southwest Colorado
Authors: Bill Trimarco
Archuleta County is a sparsely populated area in the southwest corner of Colorado. The 12,000 residents live mainly near the town of Pagosa Springs. Of the 860,000 acres within the county, about two-thirds are managed by the USDA Forest Service, the state and the Southern Ute tribe. The area has been economically challenged for decades before that term was coined. Like much of the Mountain West, it has been ripe for development over the last couple of decades. Sixty-four percent of the homes here are second homes, mostly built before the economic bubble burst in 2008. Almost every home in the county is within the WUI, and subdivisions with a single access are commonplace. Most of the development occurred in areas that were logged in the early 20th century, kept free of fire for 130 years and are now a prime example of overcrowded, stunted ponderosa pine with a Gambel oak understory. Without the benefits of fire, juniper and fir have gained a foothold to complement the ladder fuels in the understory. It’s an all too familiar scenario in the West.
FireWise of Southwest Colorado decided to tackle this situation from a number of angles. Using grant funding, a Chipper Rebate program was developed for a three-county area. Property owners were reimbursed 50 percent of their costs for chipping, whether hiring contractors or for machine rental. The following year the program was continued and expanded to include the formation of three slash depots in the county. Residents could bring in their woody slash without charge, and FireWise arranged to bring in a 400-horsepower horizontal grinder to turn the potential fuels into garden mulch.
After a year of this two-phased chipping program, it became obvious that there weren’t enough mitigation contractors in the area to handle the workload. As pressure from insurance companies to mitigate increased, more and more newspaper ads appeared from previously unknown mitigation contractors. It began to seem that anyone with a chainsaw, a pick-up truck and a dog was now a contractor. FireWise was awarded a Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS) grant for mitigation on private lands, but we were concerned about the lack of experienced, professional contractors in the area.
We approached potential contractors and told them about the upcoming mitigation grant. As interest grew, FireWise developed a workshop, in collaboration with the Colorado State Forest Service, to train contractors on defensible space guidelines. We used the CSFS Defensible Space Quick Guide as the primary reference. We found a homeowner who had just purchased an older home on 1.5 acres who was interested in getting mitigation done and keen to have the workshop on her land. All the contractors listed with CSFS, members of the local Wildfire Mitigation Professionals Association and any other interested parties were invited to attend. On April 30, 2015, 25 people showed up to assess the property. Participants included several new contractors, a few seasoned professionals, the county emergency manager, fire district wildland coordinator, Pagosa Ranger District fire prevention specialist, FireWise volunteer ambassadors and some concerned homeowners. Both the County Office of Emergency Management and the fire district are hoping to support mitigation crews this summer, so the timing was perfect.
We spent three hours working our way through the three defensible space zones as we discussed fire behavior and tagged trees and shrubs for removal. In between the instruction given and the comments and questions from the group, everyone agreed that this was a great way to learn how to assess a property and develop a plan to effectively mitigate it to manage wildfire risk.
Through matching-grant awards to individual homeowners and by educating and encouraging local contractors, we hope to get sorely needed, competently mitigated acreage on private land and provide jobs in an economically depressed area. Encouraging competent and knowledgeable contractors is just one more step in our effort to create fire-adapted communities.