Evergreen Fire/Rescue’s wildland fire team has moved forward since the department’s community ambassadors asked 16 months ago whether wildfire prevention and mitigation were priorities for the department.
At a fire board meeting on March 15, members of the department’s wildland team outlined the multi-pronged approach to both educating the community and performing the work that helps prepare the area in case there’s a wildfire.
“We have used community concerns as a road map to our approach to wildfire preparedness,” Jess Moore, wildland project coordinator, told the fire board and some of the community ambassadors. She said the department needed the roadmap first, so it could take a systematic approach to preparing for wildfire.
“If (someone on the team) leaves, then the processes are in place, so the next person knows how to continue the program,” Moore said. “It isn’t about the individual.”
Community ambassadors are volunteers who work with the fire department to educate and promote mitigation on homeowners’ properties and home hardening to try to prevent homes from catching fire. Community ambassadors serve plan units that were identified in the department’s Community Wildfire Protection Plan. From the CWPP come the Community Wildfire Protection Implementation Plans or CWPIPs
Moore said threats to EFR’s program are people believing that preparing for wildfire will be solved quickly and there was only one way forward.
“This is our community problem,” Moore said. “There are many ways we are going to chip away at this massive problem.”
EFR has divided the wildfire prevention tasks into two areas: Moore is responsible for education and planning, while Matt White, fire and fuels coordinator, is responsible for operations.
In October 2021, Cindy Latham, representing 39 community ambassadors, told the fire board they have seen little progress on the recommendations to be prepared in case of a catastrophic wildfire, especially concerning since the foothills are at the top of the list in the country for the threat of catastrophic wildfire.
She asked that EFR’s slash chipping crew be dedicated solely to that work rather than being detailed to fires in other places, that the department perform 1,000 home fire-risk assessments per year, that obtaining grants to help pay for wildfire mitigation, especially along evacuation routes, become a priority, and that meetings between EFR wildland fire personnel and the community leaders return to a regular schedule.
Moore said one of the fire department’s strengths was its community involvement, and the department has the obligation to educate and enable the community ambassadors so they can do their jobs.
“The ambassadors are fully available and willing to help us get the work done,” Moore said.
When Moore started with EFR in October 2021, it had 13 active community ambassadors; now there is activity in all but one of the 26 plan units. Moore has created processes to give ambassadors a playbook to engage with neighbors and educate them about the mitigation work that needs to be done.
The department also has spent the last 16 months creating data tracking, so it can better direct resources.
“The problem is heavy,” Moore said. “Everyone who comes into the fire service does it because they want to do the right thing. It is a passion. We are helpers. When we are presented with a big problem, we dive in and try to fix it, but if we don’t have the infrastructure or processes, we have failures.”
In 2022, the department did more than 450 defensible-space inspections and chipped slash at more than 140 homes. With a grant to hire another mitigation specialist, Moore said she hopes the department can perform more than 1,000 inspections in 2023.
In addition, EFR is working with a variety of other groups to ensure that wildfire mitigation is being done on a broader scope.
The EFR fuels crew works each year on strategic projects to help remove hazardous fuels, and this work is a tool, not the solution to prepare for wildfire, White said. The district plans to do more slash-pile burning in winter 2024 to help get rid of slash.
“The crew will go on assignments to assist other agencies with their wildfire and other emergencies, so our folks continue to build qualifications and experience,” White said.
The fuels crew now is taking on projects that make sense for what the crew can accomplish and what it is best at, and with projects that align with the fire district’s CWPP and CWPIPs, White said.
“We were taking on projects that were too big for our crew to handle, so we overpromised and underdelivered,” he said. “Moving forward, we are trying to do a better job of charging a more appropriate rate, being more conservative with time estimates to compete projects, and taking on more realistic projects to maximize the fuels crew’s effectiveness.”
The fire district charges other organizations such as Jeffco Open Space or Denver Mountain Parks for doing mitigation work.
The chipping program will create a more organized method to chip slash, moving from one area of the district to the next rather than a piecemeal approach, so more chipping will be completed each year, White said.
Moore said the October 2021 meeting was a wakeup call to the district, and while staff wanted to immediately jump in and start helping, “we had to spend a year to get our arms around it … and we are going to chip away at this massive problem.”