Photo Credit: This fall, FireWise of Southwest Colorado and Fire Adapted Colorado hosted a “Four Corners” learning exchange, bringing together fire adaptation practitioners from around Colorado, as well as partners from Flagstaff, Arizona and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Photo by Michelle Medley-Daniel, Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network

The Southwest is a new landscape for me, different than my northern California mixed-conifer home. So it is a special treat to be attending a learning exchange here, hosted by FireWise of Southwest Colorado and Fire Adapted Colorado.

From the cliff dwellings in the canyons of Mesa Verde, to the mining heritage and narrow-gauge railroad, the legacies of how people have related to this landscape surround you here. As we begin to learn about how current residents are adapting to fire, it feels like another chapter in the same rich story of people learning to live in this place.

Landscape view of San Jaun Mountain outcroppings with fall foliage.

The San Juan Mountains in Southwest Colorado are painted in yellow and orange. Winding mountain roads offer views of flaming fall colors: evidence of past fires that have allowed aspens to thrive on the hillsides. Credit: Michelle Medley-Daniel, Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network

Conversation is lively as we drive toward the first stop in our exchange. We turn into the canyon to meet the citizen organizers who are leading fire adaptation work in this neighborhood, and we can see where the Weber Fire burned in 2012.

Our first stop is a beautiful, and well-sited, home. Jeff, the homeowner, is also one of FireWise of Southwest Colorado’s Neighborhood Ambassadors. He, and the other Ambassadors supported by the program, work with their neighbors to envision and implement fire adaptation projects. One of the most successful models of homeowner engagement I’ve encountered, FireWise of Southwest Colorado’s Neighborhood Ambassador Program relies on neighborhood leaders organizing to take action. FireWise then supports the neighborhood leaders with training, access to grant funds, advice and connections. With over 150 Ambassadors representing 85 high-risk neighborhoods in three counties, their efforts cover a lot of ground.

Eight exchange participants talking in the field.

Jeff, one of the local homeowners and also a participant in the exchange, shows other participants some of the work he’s implemented near his home. Credit: Michelle Medley-Daniel, Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network

As we explore Jeff’s property it is clear that he is a diligent person. Beyond the immediate defensible space, Jeff is working to thin around mature trees he’d like to protect in the event of another fire. As we walk to the top of a small hill near the house, we have a view of his property and the many acres he has treated. He points out his next project—thinning a steeper slope, 300 feet from his home. It is clear that Jeff genuinely cares about his land and his neighbors, and he takes mitigation seriously.

The next stop on our journey is down the road at another home in Weber Canyon. There, we learn about how post-fire debris flows have affected residents and the trials that they have experienced trying to combat the damage to their road and drainage systems. This particular homeowner happens to be an engineer, and he describes how once they were aware of how much material was sluffing from the canyon wall, he was able to calculate more appropriate culvert sizes.

One of my favorite parts of the learning exchange model is that it makes room for all of the participants’ knowledge and experience. While the host organization provides the setting, we are all responsible for asking questions, sharing our experiences, looking for similarities and differences and then, digging deeper. Understanding post-fire impacts generates a lot of conversation among participants, as we head toward our next stop.

That evening we attend one of the bi-monthly Ambassador meetings.  The meeting offers a view into how FireWise of Southwest Colorado staff support and connect their volunteers. In addition to hearing about the projects each Ambassador is working on, we learn about a managed fire in the area from Pat Seekins, the Dolores District Fire Management Officer (FMO) for the San Juan National Forest.  The meeting gives us an opportunity to ask the participants about the value of the Ambassador program. Not surprisingly, the training and support provided by FireWise of Southwest Colorado staff is top of the list. They also say that having access to agency personnel— like the FMO at the meeting this evening—is of great value.

Group photo of Ambassadors after a discussion about the relationships between mitigation work and culture change

Montezuma County Ambassadors shared their stories with learning exchange participants. Credit: Michelle Medley-Daniel, Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network

The next day we visit Falls Creek Ranch, a uniquely designed neighborhood consisting of one acre building sites, or “dots,” with over 800 acres of common areas between these dots that the Home Owners’ Association (HOA) manages.

We gather in the fire hall at the entrance to their neighborhood. At least a dozen residents have joined us to share their learning and enthusiasm for working on their property. Among the many highlights shared are:

  • Developing their Community Wildfire Protection Plan was a milestone and turning point for their shared work. The process of developing that plan catalyzed a lot of resident action.
  • The HOA board created an annual budget line item for mitigation work in common areas. This money is available as a match to grants that the group applies for and is a competitive asset.
  • While much of the defensible space work that needs to be done is simple, treating common areas and dealing with beetle kill sometimes requires technical savvy. Ranch residents have been supported with classes on safe tree removal and how to identify beetle infestations.
  • Getting rid of the material generated by this work takes creativity — and sometimes equipment. In addition to purchasing an air curtain burner, residents have partnered with the Navajo Nation to offer firewood to elders.
  • Since beginning fire adaptation work, this neighborhood has rallied residents to spend over 12,000 documented volunteer hours!

All too soon, the learning exchange concludes and people head back to their own communities. Among the many lessons this experience reinforces for me is how passionate residents can be about their properties, their relationships with each other and their accomplishments. At Falls Creek Ranch, they describe their effort as a cultural shift from people thinking about “my trees, my lot, my choice” to “our forest, our neighborhood, our future.” What an inspiring example of how coordinated local action is leading to long-term cultural change!

Landscape view of the San Juan mountains from one of the homes we visited.

Gamble oaks, while sometimes presenting fuel hazard challenges, put on a beautiful show of fall colors in Southwest Colorado. Credit: Michelle Medley-Daniel, Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network

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