Are you maximizing local residents' roles in fire adaptation? Read this blog to learn about a volunteer empowerment approach that works: the Neighborhood Ambassador program. Photo: Neighborhood ambassadors for Cedar Mesa Ranches after a community chipping day, which was planned in recognition of National Wildfire Community Preparedness Day, 2018. Credit: Amanda Brenner-Cannon, Wildfire Adapted Partnership

Enhancing Fire Adaptation Through Active Volunteers: The Neighborhood Ambassador Approach

By: Ashley Downing Wildfire Adapted Partnership

Topic: Communications / Outreach Defensible space / Firewise Local workforce capacity

Type: Tools / Resources

Despite burning over 50,000 acres, the 416 Fire did exactly what the Falls Creek Ranch community wanted it to. The fire burned right up to the community boundary and because residents completed mitigation activities over the last 14 years, firefighters were able to contain the fire and save the community. Falls Creek Ranch, located north of Durango, Colorado, is one of Wildfire Adapted Partnership’s (formerly FireWise of Southwest Colorado) Neighborhood Ambassador participants and has been since 2004, shortly after they lost 10 homes during the Valley Fire.

Paulette Church has been the Falls Creek Ranch neighborhood ambassador for the last three years. She describes the program as being her foundation for sustained, informed action, or in her words:

“It is the leadership, training, motivation, collaboration, attitude and passion of Wildfire Adapted Partnership and their Ambassador program that has taught us how to create the knowledge base and attitudes needed for our residents to keep working year after year to cultivate a healthy forest.”

Screenshot of the Toolkit's coverpage

The Neighborhood Ambassador Approach Toolkit explains the structure and “how-to’s” nested in Wildfire Adapted Partnership’s Neighborhood Ambassador program. Click on the image above to download it.

The Neighborhood Ambassador program is how Wildfire Adapted Partnership (Wildfire Adapted) empowers local residents to be catalysts for wildfire adaptation in their communities. The program provides structure regarding how we recruit and train volunteers, work with partners, fund local efforts, support community events and more. We recently prepared the Fire Adapted Communities Neighborhood Ambassador Approach Toolkit (PDF, 3.17MB*) to capture this structure and our “how-to’s,” in hopes that other practitioners will replicate the program in their respective areas. Wildfire Adapted currently has 135 Ambassadors who help their neighbors in 95 different communities throughout the five southwest counties of Colorado live more safely with wildfire. Paulette and Falls Creek Ranch is a prime example of how this work pays off, but there are many other communities that have made progress so that they too can be ready when the next wildfire occurs.

*All links to the Toolkit lead to the same PDF (3.17MB) but direct you to different pages within it.

From Outreach to Finance

Dawn Engler became an ambassador in September 2017. She lives in Forest Lakes, which is the largest subdivision in La Plata County with more than 800 lots. She still remembers what attracted her to the program: I wanted more information on how to be firesafe to share with others like me, who were new to the area.”

A sawyer felling a tree

A contractor demonstrating tree felling. Mitigation Fairs are one of the activities highlighted in the Toolkit. Credit: Wildfire Adapted Partnership

In May, Dawn worked with Wildfire Adapted’s La Plata County coordinator, Charlie Landsman, to host a Mitigation Fair for all of La Plata County. (Check out the Toolkit’s many activity suggestions and corresponding division of labor recommendations.) The Mitigation Fair was held on the first Saturday in May and coincided with National Wildfire Community Preparedness Day. The event included booths about evacuation preparedness, forest health, and wildfire mitigation. Equipment available to rent or purchase was also featured. Partners such as the Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS), Upper Pine Fire Protection District, and local contractors and rental companies all participated. A local mitigation contractor even performed a tree felling demonstration. Over 100 people attended the fair, many taking their first step toward protecting their homes from wildfire shortly thereafter.

Mailer screenshot, which reads: "Hey Neighbor! Has your property in Forest Lakes been fire mitigated? We had very little moisture this winter and the fire danger is extremely HIGH. You can find available services thru: http://www.southwestcoloradofires.org/ and help your community

Dawn Engler used a Wildfire Adapted Mini-Grant to send this “mitigation mailer” to folks living in her subdivision. Credit: Dawn Engler

A few months later, Dawn took advantage of Wildfire Adapted’s Mini-Grant opportunity (one of our three financial assistance programs) to send a bulk mailing to all landowners in the subdivision. The mailer reminded them of the importance of completing wildfire mitigation, especially due to the extreme drought conditions the area has experienced since late 2017.

Offering Specific Project Opportunities and Fiscal Sponsorship

Just one county west, in Montezuma County, two ambassadors share the workload, Diane Bush and Ruth Ann Thompson for their community, the North Mancos Property Owners Association (NMPOA). This is a small community of about 10 lots. Last year, the community worked with Wildfire Adapted and its partners (the Bureau of Land Management, the Mancos Fire Protection District, and CSFS) to complete a Community Wildfire Risk Assessment, one project suggestion highlighted in the Toolkit. Their assessment prioritized 10 community activities.

One priority was forest thinning, so NMPOA worked with Wildfire Adapted to secure funding from the CSFS’ Forest Restoration and Wildfire Risk Mitigation funding opportunity. NMPOA was awarded $8,450, which they matched with a combination of cash and in-kind volunteer hours. In total, they completed 15 acres of forest thinning and mastication. According to Ruth Ann, partnering with Wildfire Adapted on the CSFS grant was a huge benefit of the Ambassador program, and, “the mitigation has made a positive difference in the forest health and wildfire [risk] reduction in our community.” In total, Wildfire Adapted served as a fiscal agent for three communities on the CSFS grant (an important component of supporting neighborhood ambassadors). Acting as a fiscal agent allows communities to do the work while Wildfire Adapted to apply its grant management expertise.

Two photos of the same landscape. The before photo has significantly more woody debris and forest fuels present

Images of a portion of the North Mancos neighborhood before (top) and after (bottom) a volunteer-initiated hazardous fuels removal project. Credit: Dan Miller

Check out this video for a deeper sense of Ruth Ann’s community before, and after, their fuels treatment work.

Planning Community Chipping Days

Back in La Plata County is Rafter J subdivision, a high-risk community with 300 lots but only one way in and one way out. In 2017, the community was on pre-evacuation notice during the Lightner Creek Fire, and afterward, Lou Fontana was “voluntold” to become a Wildfire Adapted Neighborhood Ambassador. Since that time, Lou and the Rafter J subdivision have completed a great deal. The winter of 2018 was exceptionally mild in southwest Colorado, so with Lou’s leadership, the HOA redirected its snowplow budget to a roadside thinning and chipping project. Lou organized the event and also received funding from Wildfire Adapted’s Slash Disposal program. What initially began as a community chipping day grew into more than a week of chipping. In total, 77 residents participated, cutting hazardous vegetation and piling it near roads for chipping crews to process. Eight hundred hours of volunteer labor later, 10 truckloads of chips were removed from Rafter J and about 10 additional truckloads were spread within the community, but away from structures. This equates to approximately 25 tons of fuels that are no longer endangering the community.

Two people loading brush into a chipper that is parked on a residential street

Roadside chipping in Rafter J subdivision. Credit: Lou Fontana

Fontana said that the roadside thinning and community chipper day allowed “a small core group of willing volunteers to put in time and physical effort to mitigate common areas and private parcels. Nearly 50 percent of residents have done some mitigation as part of our efforts.”

Could It Work for You?

The accomplishments highlighted in this post are just a few of the ways that our Neighborhood Ambassador program has activated and supported grassroots champions of fire adaptation. To find out more about how this program works, review the full Fire Adapted Communities Neighborhood Ambassador Approach Toolkit . Lastly, refer to the Enabling Conditions and Finding the Right People sections of the Toolkit to explore if this program is right for your area.

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