Photo Credit: Volunteers assist the Coalition for the Upper South Platte with chipping slash in Palmer Lake, Colorado. Photo by Michelle Connelly, Coalition for the Upper South Platte

An Idyllic Colorado Community with a Looming Threat

Palmer Lake is a small community of 2,500 residents in the foothills of the Colorado Front Range. The town contains historic homes that date to its founding in 1871, when the area was a summer refuge for the residents of Denver, located 60 miles to the northeast. As such, the homes are located along narrow, winding roads originally made for wagons. Although small, the community is made up of several ‘neighborhoods,’ each typified by the unique personalities and influences of its residents. To its west, the town shares a boundary with the Pike National Forest, a primary reason that many of the residents have made their home there, having quick and easy access to the Rocky Mountains. The proliferation of over-grown Gambel oak, Rocky Mountain juniper, ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir, due to over 120 years of wildfire suppression, has produced a simultaneously charming, storybook-type community and a large wildfire threat.

Map of the Palmer Lake area

Credit: Google Earth

Mitigation, Water Supply Protection and Home Wildfire Risk Assessments

The Coalition for the Upper South Platte (CUSP) has been working with Palmer Lake since 2014, when our partners working in the area requested that we increase mitigation efforts. In 2014, CUSP incorporated Palmer Lake into a regional Colorado Department of Natural Resources Wildfire Risk Reduction Grant (WRRG) grant proposal. Initially, Colorado Department of Corrections State Wildland Inmate Fire Team (SWIFT) and a few forest contractors mitigated over 40 small, residential parcels. The following year, CUSP guided SWIFT in expanding their work to include several larger private parcels, focusing on the steep western boundaries of Palmer Lake. Palmer Lake, with the support of CUSP, received another WRRG grant in 2016 to protect the community’s only water resource, a reservoir in an area popular among hikers, trail runners and mountain bikers. CUSP, with the assistance of the Mile High Youth Corps, began the mitigation of 57 acres surrounding the reservoir last year, with the remainder of the work planned for completion this year.

Before and after photos of a building, indicating the removal of juniper trees

Palmer Lake’s administrative building before and after the CUSP’s recommendations were implemented. Credit: Michelle Connelly, Coalition for the Upper South Platte

With additional funding provided by the Colorado Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, CUSP created a multifaceted project that incorporates mitigation, outreach and education with a robust home risk assessment process. The goal of the project is to complete forest management activities, increase residential participation and provide detailed response planning data to the local fire department.

As part of our proposed work, CUSP has adopted the iAuditor platform, a customizable assessment tool, to perform home wildfire risk assessments on 500 residential parcels. Under this project, interested property owners receive site-specific, assessment-based recommendations. The associated risk of each property is mapped, and the resulting geodatabase will be used in future planning and fire response efforts. Despite our outreach, the number of interested homeowners has been relatively low. We have, therefore, focused on completing curbside assessments, where no permission is needed. The vital information provided by the curbside assessments will be used to reassess our engagement strategies and to work on increasing homeowner participation. We view home assessments as a vital first step in the mitigation process.

Palmer Lake has been threatened by three of the most notable fires in Colorado’s history: the Hayman in 2002 to its west; the Waldo Canyon in 2012 to its south; and the Black Forest in 2013 to its east. Residents talk about seeing these fires’ flames, and consequently the mitigation work undertaken in the town and at the reservoir has received great support, overall. While we do not have a detailed understanding of why residents have embraced the forest management activities, but not the home wildfire risk assessments, we believe that several factors have come into play. As we all know, financial resources to mitigate can be a limiting factor. Also, in light of the tightly packed neighborhoods dissected by wagon roads, the prolific Gambel oak provides noise, dust and privacy barriers for residents.

Under the present circumstances, Palmer Lake residents have good reason to continue to manage their overgrown vegetation. While the Rocky Mountains received a well-above average snow accumulation this winter, the Front Range experienced unusually warm, dry, windy conditions from last summer into early spring. It’s also had a record number of Red Flag Warnings this winter, along with record-high temperatures. Snowstorms have been few and skimpy. The grasses from 2016 are tall and dry, particularly in the most high-risk neighborhoods.

Palmer Lake’s town administration and public works departments have been supportive and grateful for the mitigation projects in their community. They have committed resources that have allowed CUSP to complete outreach and implementation projects alike. Many residents are fully committed to advancing fire adapted communities concepts, beginning with their properties and assisting elsewhere as they can. As we move forward, CUSP plans to complete as many home wildfire risk assessments as possible. Through additional outreach strategies, such as hosting public meetings and tours, working with community champions, and completing one-on-one site visits, we hope to continue to increase private parcel mitigation. While the assessments have not taken off as we had hoped, we are confident that creating a framework for increased involvement will move the community toward a safer and more resilient status. In late 2017, the USDA Forest Service hopes to begin a 65,000-acre restoration project along the boundary of Palmer Lake. This work, in collaboration with CUSP’s and Palmer Lake’s efforts, will ensure that fire risk reduction is in on everyone’s minds.

Transitioning to a Sustainable Model

As is often the case, one organization, CUSP, has been leading the charge for mitigation in Palmer Lake. This model is not sustainable. While CUSP increased mitigation activities in the area, we also raised the level of community participation. It is our belief that catching the fish and handing it to someone does not help. We must teach people how to fish. In 2017, CUSP will begin phasing out our high level of participation in the area and act as a mentor to the town and the fire department as they carry the project forward. The Palmer Lake town administrator is determined to champion fire adapted communities efforts into the future, and we are identifying and empowering additional community leaders.

The Palmer Lake project has taught CUSP a great deal. From the initial phone call requesting help to today, we have seen amazing participation and accomplishments. The home wildfire risk assessments may not have the level of involvement that we had hoped for, but we are optimistic that the data, maps and risk layers will perk individuals’ interest. For now, CUSP continues to receive inquiries about what can be done and how to do it. A community’s path to resiliency is not a straight one. It takes numerous turns and climbs hurdles along the way. As CUSP continues to engage other communities, the lessons from working in Palmer Lake will allow us to increase our effectiveness across the region. Our next adventure has already begun. In 2016 CUSP began a similar project in Leadville, Colorado.

Written by Michelle Connelly, Staff Forester, Coalition for the Upper South Platte

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