Colorado Case Study


Project Summary

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The wildfire threat facing communities in the western United States is undisputed. According to the United States General Accounting Office (GAO) fire suppression policies on public lands coupled with population growth in wildland areas created increased risk to communities from wildfire disasters. Over the past decade, scores of lives were lost, tens of thousands of square miles of land were devastated, and thousands of homes and other structures were destroyed from damage inflicted by wildfire. Increases in population in the inland West, coupled with the appeal of living in closer proximity to public lands, create situations that expose more people, property and infrastructure to the risk of wildfire than at any time in recent history. The GAO estimates 60-100 million acres of public land and hundreds, if not thousands, of communities in the public land interface are at risk.

While many factors contributing to the intensity of wildfires cannot be controlled – wind, weather, humidity, temperature, and drought conditions – there are many actions that can be taken in the long and short term to respond to the threat of wildland fire hazards. The two dominant national-level policies to address the risks posed by wildfires, the National Fire Plan and the Western Governor's Association (WGA)10-Year Comprehensive Strategy Implementation Plan, identify four common goals for wildfire management to address long term threats posed by wildfire: 1) improve fire prevention and suppression, 2) rehabilitate and restore fire-adapted ecosystems, 3) reduce hazardous fuels, 4) promote community assistance. With these goals in mind, communities are urged to thin, conduct controlled burns, restore forests, suppress fire, create defensible space around homes and communities, undertake public education about wildfire and create markets for skilled work forces capable of removing and processing small diameter timber and forest restoration byproducts to respond to the threat of wildfire. But little has been known about what is being accomplished on the ground or what combinations of responses are used at the community level.

Great uncertainty surrounds the scope and success of community responses and why some communities manage to foster constructive responses to wildfire risks while others fail to do so. In the past decade a natural experiment has occurred in the inland portion of the western United States as communities have taken different approaches to responding to the threat of wildfire. This research investigates the scope of actions taken to adapt to wildfire risks in Colorado. The goal is to supply baseline data for what communities are doing on the ground while also providing an overview of statewide action.

Project Methods

The work in this study took place in two phases – 1) a state-level analysis of wildfire risk to counties and their NFP Grants Mapresponses; 2) county-level case studies of responsive practices. Counties are the unit of analysis in Colorado because the legislature mandates that the county is the primary unit of organization at the local level in response to wildfire. Counties that adjoined National Forest lands located in the highest risk areas, also known as the Red Zone, served as a state-level sample frame. National Fire Plan grants awarded to each county for 2001 and 2002 were compiled to determine relative levels of responsiveness. Four counties were chosen based on their high level of responsiveness to their wildfire threat; La Plata, Jefferson, Mesa and Boulder. The research entailed site visits to each county, in-person interviews, document and photographic analysis, participant observation and on-site tours. View Summary of Data Collection Techniques as PDF. The case studies were analyzed according to the four goals identified by the Western Governor's Association 10-Year Comprehensive Strategy Implementation Plan.

Site visits to case study counties took place from March 2003 to January 2004; La Plata County, March 10-14, 2003, Jefferson County, July 13-19, 2003, Mesa County, August 13-19, 2003 and Boulder County, January 4-10, 2004.

Project Findings

The four case study communities in Colorado have different relative strengths and weaknesses. Boulder and Jefferson Counties were chosen for study because they had garnered more National Fire Plan funding than other counties in Colorado. Mesa County was chosen to diversify the sample and include a Western Slope county. La Plata County was chosen because it was known to be at high risk, but had not garnered much in National Fire Plan funding at the time of our study.

In general there is a greater emphasis on education and outreach, rather than providing financial incentives for homeowners to take action. Boulder County was one exception to this general trend in Colorado. Little is being done in terms of explicitly restoring fire adapted ecosystems in the case study counties. Dealing with wood and slash utilization from thinning projects is the biggest challenge in all the counties.

La Plata County has operated in a financially resource constrained environment, but has leveraged its working relationship to accomplish a great deal. There is strong collaborative capacity at the local, state and federal levels that facilitates its ability to respond to wildfire threats. Activity within Jefferson County is driven by at the local level by county officials. CSFS and the USFS also have projects on-going in Jefferson County. Jefferson County could benefit from greater synergies among the many agencies and organizations working on the wildfire program in the region rather than their continued independent operation. Collaboration is evident among those engaging in fire prevention and suppression, but not as evident when it comes to other mitigation work. Mesa County coordinates its response to the wildfire suppression through the Interagency Fire Advisory Board, which is made up of several local, state and federal agencies and organizations. Boulder County is exemplary in many ways in its wildfire response. Having worked together for more than 25 years, the many participants in Boulder County have organized multiple inter-agency forums in which to interact, exchange information and build working relationships to facilitate inter-jurisdictional efficacy in response to wildfire threats.

Improving fire prevention and suppression
All four study counties in Colorado had effective fire suppression efforts in place. Some counties had more effective prevention efforts than others. Jefferson County's Emergency Management and Planning and Zoning offices work especially well together to undertake education, outreach, regulatory and other mitigation programs. La Plata County has been effective in reaching out with educational effort to inform its communities of the risks they face. The Wildfire Information Series, a web site that serves as a clearinghouse for information in the region, and a Wildfire education month of targeted activities have been especially effective. Boulder County's Fire Fighter's Association organizes and coordinates suppression response, while the Boulder County Wildfire Mitigation Group addresses prevention measures.

Reducing hazardous fuels
Good working relationships within the community among Colorado State Forest Service, BLM and the USFS in La Plata County allowed an impressive amount of hazardous fuel reduction to take place on public lands, especially relative to work taking place in other counties. In Jefferson County, Colorado State Forest Service has been especially effective in projects in the Lower Elk Creek section of the Upper South Platte Project. In Boulder County, the CSFS and USFS work very closely together to coordinate private property mitigation with public land treatment. CSFS has worked very hard to ensure funding is available to enable private land owners to treat their land. The Winiger Ridge project is Boulder County's 40,000 acre landscape-level treatment effort.

Restoring fire adapted ecosystems
In Jefferson County, the USFS and CSFS are working together to restore fire adapted ecosystem in the Upper South Platte Project-a 17,000 acre landscape level effort. The Ponderosa Pine Partnership in Montezuma County, a neighbor of La Plata, sought to restore nearly 12,000 acres of public land in the San Juan National Forest.

Promoting community assistance
Jefferson County runs its own defensible space and slash program, with financial assistance from CSFS, to reduce hazardous fuels on private property. La Plata County has received minimal financial support from the State Fire Assistance Cost Share Program. Lacking financial incentives, La Plata County has relied heavily on an extensive education and outreach strategy to encourage homeowners to take action on their own. The American Red Cross plays an especially active role in Mesa County in assisting land owners with mitigation efforts. Boulder County leverages significant funding from CSFS to assist homeowners and provide financial incentives to reduce fuels and create defensible space on private property.

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Copyright©2004 Toddi A. Steelman and North Carolina State University

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