Editors Note: Bill Trimarco is the Program Manager for Wildfire Adapted Partnership in Archuleta County, Colorado, and an NFPA Certified Wildfire Mitigation Specialist. Here Bill shares the long and often windy road he and partners navigated to complete wildfire mitigation on underserved resident lands in Colorado and imparts lessons learned from both a fantastic failure and great achievement. The photos throughout this piece showcase the valuable mitigation work that eventually did get accomplished. 

The years of 2012 and 2013 were exceptionally bad years for Colorado in terms of catastrophic wildfires. To make matters worse, heavy rains and flooding in 2013 added mud and debris flows to an already impacted landscape. In response, John Hickenlooper, Colorado’s then Governor, declared a statewide disaster. This opened the door to the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The State also pledged to provide half of the 25% match required for a grant. I had been working in the nonprofit sector long enough to know how difficult it is to get steady funding so this grant program caught my attention. As a coordinator for FireWise of Southwest Colorado (now Wildfire Adapted Partnership), I had seen firsthand how effectively incentives can be used to encourage stakeholders to perform mitigation work.

Neither I nor anyone I worked with regularly had ever dealt with FEMA. One seasoned BLM staffer thought that FEMA was a perfect match for our organization. Everyone else told me that they had heard that FEMA funding could be too hard to obtain and might not be worth the effort. This blog post chronicles some of our lessons learned on a circuitous route from applying for a FEMA grant all the way through treating resident properties in a multi-year mitigation project. We received funding, lost funding, forged new partnerships, lost partners and in the end made a lasting impact on wildfire mitigation in a high-risk, underserved area. Two programs – one a dismal failure and one rather successful but the lessons learned spanned both incarnations, so come along for the journey of our fantastic failure that resulted in a great achievement…

Lesson #1: If you do not know where to start, sometimes you just need to open your eyes and jump right in. 

FEMA descriptions of programs and eligibility requirements make sense to those who are familiar with FEMA programs, but for those of us newer to the programs, we found it difficult to unpack.

Through my initial research on their website I learned that the program is not directly open for nonprofit groups. In order to participate, we would have to become a sub-applicant to the larger state application. I had lots of questions; as an example, I couldn’t figure out whether funds were provided up front or were reimbursable. I could have gotten a lot of questions answered from the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (CDHSEM), if I had known to ask.  In my optimistic naivety, I went in search of a sub-applicant partner. Who could be better than the Archuleta County Office of Emergency Management (OEM)?

A site before mitigation efforts

The same site after mitigation efforts. Photos by author.

Lesson #2: Prioritize. Choose a viable and needed project and have faith.

The relatively new Archuleta County Emergency Manager had previously been with the Pagosa Fire Protection District and had a long track record of service to the community.  Together, we prioritized the Aspen Springs subdivision just west of Pagosa Springs as it showed up as bright red on all of the wildfire risk maps.

The Aspen Springs subdivision comprises almost 8,000 lots covering about 8,000 acres.  Over 96 miles of narrow dirt roads twist and turn through the steep rolling hills and crowded vegetation of the subdivision. Some roads are impassable to fire engines when wet. Aspen Springs has no Homeowners Association and no municipal water or sewer system. Electricity is spotty with many lots off the grid. Many of the lots are undeveloped. Most of the residents have underground cisterns and rely on water deliveries for their needs. The population is mostly working families, retirees, low income residents and absentee land owners.

The landscape is predominantly second growth ponderosa with dense Gambel oak understory. Areas of juniper can occur on southern exposures and white fir is mixed in on some north facing slopes. The ponderosa pines are mostly stunted and overcrowded, often with 200 to 300 trees per acre (the pre-settlement average was 25 to 60 trees per acre). Historic fire regimes suggest that this area is about 140 years overdue for a wildfire.

The Archuleta County Emergency Manager and I developed the Stollsteimer Creek Low Income Mitigation Program to mitigate some of the risks in the Aspen Springs area. The basic plan was relatively simple: residents whose household income was less than 85% of the Archuleta County median income would be eligible for free wildfire mitigation on their property. Under the new program, the Archuelta County Office of Emergency Management would increase their seasonal wildland fire crew from two to five employees. On a rotational basis, half their time would be spent performing mitigation work for the program. The match requirement of the FEMA grant could be met by some of the mitigation work being done at County expense. The County Administration and Commissioners liked the idea of having a larger seasonal fire crew available if needed, but also keeping them busy doing work paid for by FEMA when there weren’t fires to fight. A Notice of Intent (NOI) was submitted to the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management to formally begin the FEMA HMGP grant application process.

Lesson #3: Be patient and trust your State agency.

There are a lot of steps involved with Federal grants. After accepting the NOI, the seasoned staff at CDHSEM did most of the heavy lifting, guiding us through the process. They made sure that we covered all the prerequisites that are part of an application. Nine months after our original brainstorming session the application was submitted.

A few more obstacles were uncovered after the initial project approval, the biggest of which involved the Endangered Species Act. The entire project area was potential habitat for the Pagosa Skyrocket (Ipomopsis polyantha), a small plant that had recently been discovered in the County and placed on the endangered species list. The Skyrocket had never been found in the immediate work area and can only be positively identified for a short period of the growing season, which presented some definite logistical challenges. We contacted CDHSEM and were allowed to revise the budget and plan to include an environmental assessment of every property in the project area. In December of 2015, two years after the process began, revised documents were submitted. By May of 2016, the FEMA award was finalized, all contracts were signed and the program was in place.

Lesson #4: Don’t freak out when plans go out the window. 

Finally, after two and half years, we began accepting applicants. Residents were vetted for income requirements. Wildfire risk reviews, scopes of work and environmental assessments were completed on 4 properties. OEM was in the process of hiring their seasonal crew, but the number of job applications was below our expectations. It looked like we might have a slow start, but the pieces were coming together. Until suddenly they weren’t.

The County Emergency Manager left his position and the program fell into limbo. A new Emergency Manager was appointed and I was hopeful that things would finally get going before fall. One day, the new Emergency Manager called and asked me to meet him at his office and explained to me that he didn’t think a mitigation program was a good fit for his department and that the County was pulling out of all agreements regarding the FEMA funded program. So that meant the county was dropping the program and would not be submitting any reimbursement invoices to FEMA even though there had been work conducted.

Now what? In September of 2016, FireWise of Southwest Colorado (now, Wildfire Adapted Partnership) hired mitigation contractors and picked up the tab on the $7,000 worth of work that was in process when the County dropped the program. FireWise chose to make sure those initial projects were completed as a measure of good faith to the community since we had done so much outreach to promote this $215,000 project. We licked our wounds on this time consuming and expensive failure. Our program that started out as a good idea did not look so good anymore.

A site before…

The site after mitigation work. Photos by author.

Lesson #5: Don’t give up on a good project. 

There are a couple of old sayings that sometimes pop into my head. One is: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Another is a common definition of insanity– doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I couldn’t decide which one of those sayings applied to this project, but the wildfire threat was still there for the people living in Aspen Springs. Without our partner, the FEMA grant was off the table and we had to look elsewhere.

The Community Assistance Funds Adjacent to National Forest Service lands (CAFA) is a federally funded program administered in this state by the Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS). The Stollsteimer Creek watershed, where Aspen Springs is located, is bounded on one side by US Forest Service land and on another by Southern Ute Tribal land. Those agencies had done considerable mitigation work on their managed lands, which made Stollsteimer both eligible and a prime candidate for a CAFA proposal. Nonprofits are eligible to apply for these grants which could make things easier. I brought this idea to our organization, but at the time, they were not interested in applying for this grant, so I went in search of someone who was. 

Lesson #6: Choose good partners.

The San Juan Headwaters Forest Health Partnership (SJHFHP) is a long standing group of stakeholders mostly in the area of the Pagosa Ranger District on the San Juan National Forest. The collaborative group has been around for well over a decade. The partnership has been recognized by Forest Service leadership at the regional level and in Washington, D.C. as an example of a well-functioning collaboration worthy of replication across the country. Members cover a diverse cross-section of the populace—local government, foresters, animal lovers, recreationists, business leaders and interested residents all participate. The group and their fiscal agent, Mountain Studies Institute (MSI), had never been involved in a project quite like this before, but they were keen to try and had experience with grant funding and agency mitigation projects. The old FEMA proposal was taken from the shelf, dusted off and revised to fit the CAFA parameters. Before the spring of 2017, the application was submitted.

Revisit Lessons 3 & 4: Lesson #3: Be patient and trust your State agency and Lesson #4: Don’t freak out when plans go out the window.

We were awarded the CAFA grant in mid-August 2017. Unfortunately, in a Rocky Mountain community where most of the residents live above 7,000 feet elevation, September is too late to begin most outdoor projects. The winter of 2017-2018 turned out to be quite good for replenishing the snowpack but, as a result, mitigation work got off to a late start. The other delay in 2018 was that all the area contractors were booked solid and playing catch-up after the late season snowpack. Things were not looking good for our CAFA grant with a September 2019 closing date. Luckily, the folks at CSFS were very understanding about the situation and extended the award for another year. We did manage to protect three properties in 2018.

By the spring of 2019, things were in full swing. Applications were coming in steadily, assessments were being completed and contractors provided with detailed plans for mitigation. As the process began humming along, a couple of interesting things popped up.

Lesson #7a: Protect the homes!

Many people have their own ideas about which wildfire mitigation practices are best for their homes. Some of these ideas have merit and some don’t stand up to proven science. Still, there are a lot of compromises that can be made to satisfy a property owner while protecting the home. A “pet tree” that someone’s grandmother planted too close to the house 40 years ago does not necessarily have to be cut down if some other adjustments can be made. However, kindling and duff near the house is not up for debate. Continuous vertical and horizontal paths of fuel in the pertinent zones must be broken up. When taking a look at the overall project, if basic criteria are not met, I would rather pass than spend money ineffectively. During this first full season, we had to make that choice a few times. Some of the property owners were not willing to compromise on vegetation removal. If doing a partial job did not look like it would make much difference for structure protection, we chose to spend our money and time elsewhere.

A site before…

The site after mitigation work. Photos by author.

Lesson #7b: Use good contractors and communicate with them clearly. 

When dealing with contractors, it is very important that they have a good picture of what you are trying to accomplish. Fortunately, our organization has worked with a lot of the same contractors over the years and have reached a point where a quick text or phone call can answer most questions. These relationships did not happen automatically.  Over the years, we have held contractor-oriented Defensible Space workshops to encourage proven practices. We have spent a lot of one-on-one time with contractors and their crews. When dealing with new contractors, you can expect to make an extra trip or two to a job site to make sure that effective defensible space is being created.  Listening to the residents is important, too. Ask them what they thought of the job and the crew that did it (for example, I stopped using one contractor because of his negative interactions with residents).

Lesson #3 (One more time): Be patient and trust your State agency.  

The program carried on through 2019 and 2020. Thirty-seven more properties were completed, many of them adjacent to each other as a result of neighbor-to-neighbor conversations. Pockets of increased protection were created in a diverse community. As the final CAFA grant deadline was drawing near, we realized that some minimal funds would be left over and we did have some applications from outside of the target area. We presented CSFS with maps showing how we could extend the work area. As a result, we treated three more properties in the spring of 2021.

So, the round-up:

  • Budget: $187,000 with $16,000 as in-kind match from our organization and MSI (outreach and reduced fiscal fees, respectively);
  • Properties treated: 43 properties; 107 acres;
  • The average cost: $1,750 per acre on par with area treatment costs. Residents contributed their own time (mostly raking needles, moving firewood piles and combustibles) but did not have to provide a cash match.

To a lot of land managers, accustomed to landscape-scale projects, this may not sound like much of an accomplishment. In an extremely high-risk subdivision noted for independent individuals living off the grid, mitigating that many properties is a resounding success. Most of the homeowners were quick to express their gratitude. One local musician is still telling folks how happy he is three years later! After reviewing applications and seeing how little income is available for extra expenses, such as wildfire mitigation, I can say that I do not know that any of this work would have happened without this program. Let’s hope that when the big one comes, it will make a difference.

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