With a grant from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, FireWise of Southwest Colorado designed a program to reduce fuels and ember ignition hazards around homes, and develop community fuel breaks for low-income communities. Applicants were required to own their home and have a household income below 80 percent area median income (AMI), which is common for many programs. Each applicant received a site visit to assess the wildfire hazards, which provided the foundation for the project design. The assessment considered everything from the vegetation to missing siding shingles, with a focus on the home ignition zone. Neighborhoods where at least half of the residents met the income guidelines were also eligible for community fuel break work.
The Southwest Conservation Corps, a local youth training program that strives to empower individuals to positively impact their lives, their communities and the environment, was brought on to do the fuel reduction work. Though defensible space development on private land is beyond the scope of typical work undertaken by the Corps, it turned out to be an enriching experience for the eight youth corps members. The crew learned how to change the horizontal and vertical continuity of fuels around a home, chip and stack slash for different disposal methods, and conduct pesticide stump treatments, contour felling and more. By the end of their 80-hour hitch at least ten cords of piñon, juniper and oak firewood and nearly ten tons of branches and brush had been removed from the four home sites.
In addition to the forest thinning, a Volunteer Work Day was scheduled to address ember ignition hazards at two of the homes. The work day included 19 volunteers from churches, an alternative high school, FireWise, and a mitigation contractor. Contributions from a wide range of donors helped make the day a success. At the end of the day, decks had been screened, weed cloth and gravel buffers had been placed around the homes, sections of wood fence had been replaced with metal, fire-resistant shrubs were planted, slash was chipped, and a wooden carport was dismantled.
The intensive commitment of time and money for the protection of four homes was balanced by the community fuel break aspect of the program. Working with the property manager of a 96-unit mobile home park, a mechanical treatment created a mosaic over 9.3 acres of dense greasewood, rabbit-brush and sage adjacent to Vista Verde Village. This was coupled with community outreach–information about the project was sent with each space rental bill. As was our hope, one resident took our FireWise Neighborhood Ambassador volunteer training to become a liaison for wildfire risk reduction and fire adapted communities.
Below are a few lessons learned from our pilot program:
- Allow plenty of time for outreach for every step, from seeking applicants, to seeking donations and volunteers.
- Slash! Slash! Slash! You can never be over-prepared to deal with the biomass that will come from fuel reduction projects. Have plans A, B, and C and be sure to budget for a plan D.
- Combining mechanical projects with hand-thinning projects balances per-acre treatment costs.
- Resident education is a vital part of any program.
- Help homeowners help themselves. Once we provided detailed home assessments and instruction for evacuation readiness, the residents got involved. One of the 80-year-old ladies was installing weed barrier and patterned stones around the base of the trees near her home.
- Assess the level of need for a new program before undertaking it. An in-depth, low-income needs assessment would have helped us better understand the specific needs of our communities.
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