Photo Credit: The Multi-Agency Coordinating Council (MAC) took on the FAC Self Assessment Tool in Archuleta County, CO. Photo by Bill Trimarco

A couple of years ago, the FAC Net introduced the FAC Self-Assessment Tool (FAC SAT). It is a template for assessing wildfire risk and available resources, and developing action plans for a community. Undertaking this self-assessment sounded like a good idea, but it did pose a lot of questions about how to implement it in rural southwestern Colorado.

“What size community could best be served by an assessment?” was the first question. Archuleta County comprises about 860,000 acres with more than half being national forest or Southern Ute lands. Less than 300,000 acres are privately owned and home to the 12,000 residents. Most of those residents live close to the town of Pagosa Springs, in subdivisions that range from rustic to suburban. There is another interesting factor that influences things: 64 percent of the homes in the county are second homes. In contrast to that, a significant number of the permanent residents, get by on household incomes somewhere between the poverty line and the state median income. The handful of us who wanted to perform the assessment determined that the part-time residents would not be willing to devote enough time to the exercise. Most of the full-time residents were too busy working multiple jobs to make a commitment to sit through meetings. Moreover, many local subdivisions were already engaged in community wildfire protection planning or Firewise Community/USA processes.

We decided to introduce the idea to the Multi-Agency Coordinating Council (MAC) to see if there was enough interest to proceed. The MAC is a loose-knit group of agency representatives who meet every two months under the umbrella of the County Office of Emergency Management. Participants from the Sheriff’s Department, Red Cross, town Police Department, school district, Chamber of Commerce, USDA Forest Service, Colorado Department of Public Safety, local fire districts, Humane Society, FireWise, local utility and water companies, hospital and first responders, local legislators, news media, Colorado State Forest Service and the Southern Ute Tribe have all been at the table. The emergency manager hosts the meetings to foster communication and coordinate incident procedures. It is often a time for the various agencies to update each other on programs and events. It was a good cross-section of the community to present the idea of a self-assessment. The group’s consensus was to complete the FAC SAT at a county-wide level.

The Challenge of a County-wide Assessment

Implementing the assessment was easier said than done. Anyone who has lived in a rural community can attest to how few resources are available and how many different tasks fall on the community and agency leaders. This isn’t exactly a crowd of serial meeting goers. We managed to get 30 to 45 minutes on the agenda every two months over the last year to work on the project. Quite often there were different representatives present at each meeting, which led to some backtracking to get everyone up to speed. A lot of information was shared electronically before the meetings to help with the little face-to-face time available. Data was shared about our wildfire response capacity, equipment and personnel. We listed critical infrastructure. We discussed our values at risk, not just the lives and structures, but the local economy and the intangible facets of a community that are beyond a dollar value.

Little by little, we began to paint a picture of the county by talking about issues and sharing FAC practices. We learned some things from each other and completed the assessment. Did we come up with an itemized action plan, partners to implement it and funding? No, not really. Does that mean the exercise was a failure? What did we gain from our hard work?

What We Learned

Working through the self-assessment process did help us identify the need for a reliable source of consistent information about local incidents. In a rural area, with a high number of elderly retirees and a recreation/tourism-based economy, accurate information about an incident is very important. We are still determining how to best accomplish this.

We also learned that in spite of our limited resources, we are fairly well-prepared to respond to a wildfire. Our local volunteer firefighters all receive wildfire training. Inter-agency agreements provide additional response capabilities. Local leaders have put a high priority on wildfire response and it shows.

A good self-assessment will show your weak points, too. Heading that list is a lack of desire to consider enacting any of the WUI building codes. Other preemptive actions, like mitigation and education, were also not high priorities with the participants, and the amount of work that needs to be done reflects that.

This exercise did highlight the need to educate not just the public, but also our local leaders about wildfire and the many ways to accept and prepare for it. It also opened some lines of communication among partners and got them looking at the wildfire issue from a different perspective. Many seeds of thought were planted in the minds of the participants. Now we will have to see what comes of it.

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