Working Together to Reduce Wildfire Risk in Jefferson County

Jefferson County Commissioners
Posted 3/16/21

Colorado watched last year the devastating impact of catastrophic fires. Homes were destroyed, families displaced and more than 625,000 acres of land scorched. Firefighters and law enforcement put …

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Working Together to Reduce Wildfire Risk in Jefferson County

Posted

Colorado watched last year the devastating impact of catastrophic fires. Homes were destroyed, families displaced and more than 625,000 acres of land scorched. Firefighters and law enforcement put their lives on the line to save others. In 2020, state officials recorded the three largest fires in Colorado’s history. As our climate changes, scientists forecast that fast-moving wildfires will burn hotter and longer in increasingly dry conditions further fueled by dead forest vegetation like beetle-kill trees.

Jefferson County is not immune to wildfires. Almost 25 years later, you can still see the burn scars from the Buffalo Creek fire. The heat was so intense that it scorched the ground, creating what’s known as hydrophobic soil. Destructive flooding followed that caused two deaths and extensive property damage. The fire has a lingering impact on the landscape to this day.

More recently, the Elephant Butte Fire threatened hundreds of homes and families in Evergreen. Thanks to the swift work of first responders and some help from Mother Nature, no one was injured and no structures were lost, saving an estimated $48 million in potential property damage.

These fires occurred in what’s called the wildland-urban interface – or WUI – where development is near or on forested lands. More than two-thirds of the county is in the WUI, including Evergreen and Conifer which rank #1 in Colorado, and in the top 10 nationally, in the potential risk of property loss to wildfire. That’s according to the Verisk Fireline State Risk Report.

The impact of wildfire is not limited to our Foothills communities either. Wildfire can negatively affect air and water quality in communities across our county.

Reducing wildfire risk is a top priority for the county as we work closely with fire chiefs, the Jeffco Sheriff’s Office, Jeffco Open Space, Jeffco Planning and Zoning, forest health managers, water experts, community leaders and others to help address this pressing issue, including:

• Creating the county’s first ever Wildfire Risk Reduction Task Force, which is made up of 31 members representing stakeholders across Jeffco. Late last year, task force members presented several recommendations to county commissioners focused on forest mitigation, community education and funding. See the task force’s recommendations at: https://bit.ly/3tHRrwL.

• Enhancing the county’s building and residential codes to harden new and existing homes against wildfire risk. This work was done at the urging – and in partnership – with Foothills fire chiefs who worked with Jeffco Building Safety leaders to create new codes later approved by county commissioners.

• Improving forest health on 1,000 acres of Jeffco Open Space over the next five years by significantly thinning dense tree stands. This seven-fold increase in activity will reduce wildfire fuels and risk in mountain areas.

Other county initiatives include the Jeffco slash program to help community members remove forest debris near their homes such as dead tree branches, pinecones and needles. Jeffco’s Emergency Management Team is working with partners to update the county’s Multi-Hazard Mitigation Plan. More at https://bit.ly/3uDU0Rf. Commissioners also approved last year an amendment to the county’s policy to allow for signs in the right-of-way that raise awareness of fire danger and county staff worked on a memorandum of understanding to partner with Evergreen Fire Rescue for mitigation of fire risks within county right-of-way.

Still, more work remains as we address growth and development in high fire risk areas. Jeffco’s Planning and Zoning team is tackling two of the task force’s recommendations: defining the wildland-urban interface and strengthening county regulations and enforcement on defensible space around homes and other structures in the WUI.

Other changes under consideration include requiring an evacuation impact report for certain rezoning applications in the Wildfire Hazard Overlay District, requiring proof of fire protection to obtain building permit, and a myriad of proposals suggested by fire protection districts, Mountain Area Concerned Citizens and engaged community members.

We are not only focusing on wildfire at a county level, but partnering with our state and national leaders. Commissioners and several members of the county’s wildfire task force recently attended Congressman Joe Neguse’s first Wildfire Summit to address policy solutions focused on forest health, disaster recovery, watershed protection and support services for firefighters.

Commissioner Dahlkemper also serves as one of two county commissioners representing the interests of counties statewide on the Colorado Fire Commission, a group created by the Governor to address wildfire issues.

Together, we’re seeking collaborative solutions as we learn from 2020 and move forward in 2021 to keep Jeffco safe from wildfire and protect our public lands for generations to come.

Tracy Kraft-Tharp, Andy Kerr and Lesley Dahlkemper comprise the Board of County Commissioners for Jefferson County. They can be reached at commish@jeffco.us or individually at tktharp@jeffco.us, akerr@jeffco.us and ldahkem@jeffco.us.

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