Photo Credit: Despite this tree’s natural beauty, dense Gambel oak stands can create access issues along roadsides. Firewise of Southwest Colorado’s recent mitigation efforts restored stands like the one pictured to more manageable conditions. Photo by S.J. & Jessie Quinney Library, “Gambel Oak 2”

Over a decade ago, a firefighter on the 2002 Missionary Ridge fire sparked great motivation in local resident Larry Brown when he stated, “If this or any other wildfire comes up the valley, your community is toast.” Taking those words to heart, Brown has since led a great community wildfire mitigation project.

Brown is a Neighborhood Ambassador for FireWise of Southwest Colorado. He lives in Rockwood Estates, a small subdivision 20 miles north of Durango. Rockwood Estates, Rockwood Village, Farview Estates, a handful of private parcels, a golf and ski resort and an American Heritage Railway station are all primarily accessible by County Road 200 (CR 200).

Brown had attended enough Fire Council meetings to understand the importance of good access for firefighters and residents. The first quarter mile along CR 200 belongs to the San Juan National Forest and was moderately thinned about 10 years ago. CR 200 then winds downhill through a mostly ponderosa pine and Gambel oak forest, before transitioning into a dry mixed-conifer forest. Though it is two lanes wide, CR 200 doesn’t have shoulders or good visibility, largely due to the dense vegetation.

Last year, in efforts to ensure that the comment made in 2002 didn’t come to fruition, Brown proposed a 100-foot-deep shaded fuel break along a privately owned portion of CR 200. His timing was good, as Colorado had just announced another round of Wildfire Risk Reduction Grant funding. After securing interest from his homeowner’s association for the project, he contacted the landowners for permission to work on their land, as well as La Plata County for permission to work in its right-of-way.

Trees removed as part of the wildfire mitigation project being loaded into a chipper.

Project team chipping felled trees on the County Road 200 right-of-way. Credit: Larry Brown, Neighborhood Ambassador for Rockwood Estates.

Then the bids came in. The cost per acre was extremely high, highlighting that it was imperative to 1) find some cheaper acres to add to the project and 2) bring in more partners. Brown did both.

The more economic acres came from the north side of the road and included opening up an old fire road overgrown with oak, thinning along the right-of-way, and reducing fuels around a water treatment plant and electrical substation.

FireWise was successful in securing the grant for the Rockwood project in part because it was a great wildfire mitigation project. However, its success was primarily because of the number of partners involved. Following numerous phone calls, emails and tours, Brown was able to secure funding from three homeowner associations, two businesses and several private landowners.

Every project has a glitch or challenge, and this one was no exception. Challenges included fence removal and reinstallation upon project completion, traffic control needed (when the contractor would be felling several large ponderosa along the road) and of course, a reluctant homeowner’s association (not Brown’s).

The trees removed for wildfire mitigation were cut into logs, stacked and then collected from the forest.

Rathjen Construction gathering fire logs for the Durango Daybreak Rotary donation. A total of 60 tons of high quality Gambel oak, aspen and conifer fire logs was delivered. Credit: Larry Brown, Neighborhood Ambassador for Rockwood Estates.

There was also the problem of wood removal. Some wood was cut to length and left for residents, but from the beginning, residents wanted to donate the wood to the Rotary Club of Durango Daybreak, which supplies firewood to residents in need. The sheer quantity of wood overwhelmed the Rotary’s capacity to transport, creating the need to hire a contractor to haul the wood to the Rotary Club’s storage site.

In the end, 11 acres of hazardous fuels reduction were accomplished, visibility along CR 200 was greatly enhanced, this main access route is more likely to remain open during a wildfire, and 180 homes are now better protected. All good.

But the bigger side of the story (in my mind anyway) is the way that the stakeholders came together to reduce their wildfire risk. They made an investment on property outside of their immediate community and they shared in the cost. They covered the cost of delivering 60 tons (about 22 cords) of primo wood, mostly oak, to the Rotary Club (which consequently anticipates being able to provide an additional 10-15 households with wood this year). And best of all, they are looking ahead to next year and the additional mitigation that they want to accomplish.

When FireWise and the Colorado State Forest Service inspected the almost-complete project a few weeks ago, the USDA Forest Service joined in and began the discussion about a re-treatment on their adjoining lands. Hopefully, next year the San Juan National Forest will join this outstanding FAC partnership in their effort to ensure that CR 200 is home to more fire adapted communities.

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