"I assumed residents shared their board’s enthusiasm for the wildfire risk mitigation project [ ... ] I assumed wrong." Photo credit: Pam Wilson

Fantastic Failure: Why Would Residents Refuse Wildfire Mitigation Money?

By: Einar Jensen South Metro Fire Rescue

Topic: Communications / Outreach Defensible space / Firewise Fuels treatment / Prescribed fire

Type: Fantastic Failure

A high-risk neighborhood refusing a $13,500 mitigation grant is a fantastic failure.

The year was 2013, and I was on top of my game. I was (and still am) a risk reduction specialist for South Metro Fire Rescue. In addition to teaching wildfire prevention, injury prevention and emergency preparedness to elementary-school students and elders, I coordinate wildfire mitigation outreach. I did it all, and well, or so I thought. In the latter role, I explain the benefits of mitigation to homeowners and collaborate with them on mitigation projects, including securing funding.

For several years, I worked with The Retreat, a neighborhood of 67 homes within the City of Castle Pines. At least annually, I discussed fire adaptation at homeowners’ association (HOA) meetings, and I had conducted home ignition assessments for several homeowners.

Eventually, South Metro Fire Rescue chose The Retreat as our top priority given a number of factors, including its position on the priority list in the Castle Pines North Community Wildfire Protection Plan and the HOA leadership’s willingness to conduct mitigation.

The greatest risk facing these residents, aside from the fuels growing in their own backyards, was a collective one posed by 10 acres of oak-covered open space surrounding their homes. In many cases, the dense, unmanaged oak groves stretched into backyards. Gambel oak isn’t always flammable, but when it does ignite, it can generate immense heat and produce a blizzard of embers.

Gamble oak spanning fences and residential backyards (with snow on the ground). Why would a high risk neighborhood like this refuse a wildfire mitigation grant?

Many of the Gamble oak groves extended from open space into privately owned backyards. Credit: Einar Jensen, South Metro Fire Rescue

Applying for a grant from Colorado’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management to reduce the oak seemed appropriate. The HOA board of directors agreed that mitigation was overdue and, finally, we had a potential way to fund it.

The trouble started after we applied for the $9,150 grant in the summer of 2013. The grant wasn’t awarded until the summer of 2014, and by then the cost of the project had increased to $13,500. Fortunately, the Coalition for the Upper South Platte (CUSP) was willing to cover the difference with another grant.

But something else changed during that year. Despite being in the shadow of 2013’s Black Forest Fire, residents had changed their mind about the costs and benefits of mitigation. Or maybe they didn’t. In fact, the HOA leadership remained committed to the grant, but the residents hadn’t shared their opinions during the application process.

I assumed residents shared their board’s enthusiasm for the project. The scope of work was straightforward and based on accepted standards:

  • Remove all oak within 15–20 feet of residential yards.
  • Target old, dead patches, especially those with significant top kill.
  • Leave clusters of oaks that are four or more inches in diameter.
  • Create small openings to create a mosaic of oaks.

I assumed wrong.

And now, residents were demanding to vote on the project rather than let the HOA Board make the decision on whether to proceed. In an effort to ease concerns, I proposed a pilot treatment site behind the home of one resident who was ambivalent about the project. The masticator shredded the oak to the scope of work’s standards. Although the treated area looked great to our contract forester and me, several residents observing the work were horrified. I stopped the pilot treatment.

The results of the neighborhood vote were closer than I anticipated, but the decision was not a surprise. Twenty-eight residents voted against the project while only 22 voted in favor of it. The HOA board paid the mastication firm for the pilot site work and South Metro Fire Rescue returned the grant money to CUSP and the state.

The project and, by extension, the efforts of its coordinator (me) were huge failures. It was hard for me to accept the homeowners’ decision because it conflicted with my beliefs about wildfire risk, personal responsibility and firefighter safety. Their decision also suggested I wasn’t a good ambassador for fire adaptation because I hadn’t changed their attitudes.

Hindsight and distance are great tools. I now believe my bigger mistake was in not assessing the homeowners’ attitudes and offering them options that resonated with those attitudes. As a risk reduction specialist, I’m not responsible for changing the attitudes of others. I am responsible for changing awareness about issues so that audiences can change their attitudes if they are so inclined. Learning happens within the learner.

I also learned that I needed to adjust how I approached residents in the wildland-urban interface (WUI). I had assumed residents were unaware about their risk and that if residents didn’t voice objections that they supported projects. Research from Sarah McCaffrey and other USDA Forest Service research foresters suggests that residents are familiar with their wildfire risk but balance the costs and benefits of mitigation differently than land managers, risk reduction specialists and firefighters.

This research has changed how I approach WUI homeowners.

After two years of not feeling welcome at The Retreat HOA meetings, in 2015, I contacted the new board about using goats for mitigation. I explained that I knew residents recognize wildfire risk but also value the views of oak in their open space.

My email to the board president read: “I’d like to meet with you to discuss a new form of mitigation for The Retreat’s open space. No tractors. Promise!”

His reply: “If it’s goats — we’re in!”

These residents never opposed the theory of mitigation, and they recognized the threat wildfire posed to their families and neighborhood. They did, however, oppose using a masticator and its lack of precision. Goats, luckily, treat oak differently than masticators. They eat the leaves and lower branches without impacting the canopy, and because they remove the lower fuels, canopies are left better protected from burning in low- and moderate-intensity wildfires.

A goat eating Gamble oak leaves

Credit: Tamara Harney

A herd of goats grazing near and on a Gamble oak

Although residents of The Retreat supported mitigation, they opposed using mechanized masticators to treat their oaks. Residents did, however, support using goats to reduce the wildfire risk in their neighborhood. Credit: Einar Jensen, South Metro Fire Rescue

Three years later, and residents and the board of The Retreat have embraced the Ready, Set, Goat! program. It’s not the only solution for their wildfire risk, but it is a key component of a comprehensive solution. It has created opportunities for more “surgical” forms of treatment such as mowing and hand thinning. Turns out, our fantastic failure was a steppingstone toward a fantastic success.

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4 thoughts on “Fantastic Failure: Why Would Residents Refuse Wildfire Mitigation Money?”

  1. LizAnne Jensen says:

    Great story. I like how you adapted to the concerns of the community and it ended up being a win-win situation. Having a wide range of tools and solutions at one’s disposal can make positive change possible.

  2. Wesley Keller says:

    Einar, your bringing back memories… About 16 years ago I went through a very similar incident. I had a very active HOA board and most property owners were as well. One of our goals at the time was to install under ground water storage tanks for fire suppression use. This bank of tanks would equal close to 10,000 gallons and serve three communities.
    It was a grant situation as well with the majority in favor of the project we started the process. But there were those who were not happy about it and voiced their opinions.
    At the end of the construction phase , all that was left was to have the fire department fill the tanks, which they were on tap to do. During this short window of opportunity when the tanks were vulnerable to collapse damage because of no water, someone drove a truck over them and they did all fail. Stopping the project in it’s track. To this day I think those tanks are sitting underground.
    After a five year law suit, in which I was on the stand for hours, the case was thrown out and the HOA lost
    tens of thousands of dollars in grant money and even more for lawyer fees.
    The only part of the mitigation project that was completed was construction of a paved two lane road as a second means of egress. This road project is also used my a neighboring development for the same purpose.
    The neighboring community of 2000 plus homes has been an active Firewise Community since 2002. Their mitigation projects have included under ground water storage tanks, fuel reduction work, developing evacuation routing, CERT program, dry hydrant installs, signage to meet NFPA standards and the development of an all risk shelter including sleeping and kitchen facilities.

  3. Gloria Erickson says:

    Great Story! Without giving away too much I might have an upcoming fantastic failure story similar to yours. Your story has helped to get me thinking about possible “alternatives” before I have to give the money back. Hopefully, my story will end on a successful “stepping stone” note, as well. Thank you for sharing.

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