A meeting that was delayed a few weeks by the federal government shutdown finally pulled together 14 different entities for a Feb. 7 daylong strategy session to develop a Community Wildfire Protection Plan, through the Envision Chaffee County Fire and Healthy Landscapes Partnership. The successful endeavor established goals and an approach to protect county residents, homes and essential infrastructure form the destruction of catastrophic wildfire.
The discussion included not just the immediate effects of fire, but the yearslong post-fire impacts of damage to natural environments and flooding. The group worked it’s way through five main goals for the partnership, refining and carefully adjusting them for clarity and relevance to their vision. Based on these goals, during the next nine months, the partnership will focus on local priorities in the Chaffee Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP), as the participating agencies develop forest management projects.
The first local goal focuses on developing a shared multi-jurisdictional treatment and stewardship plan, with defined priorities. The initial conversation focused on doubling the rate and effectiveness of treatments over the next 10 years, building on the successes with existing treatments first identified in the 2009 CWPP. Which focused on fire resilience.
“The concerns are that the federal process of planning and social pressures could change what we do here, and make us loose local focus,” said Salida District Ranger Jim Pitts. “We’re aware of this, but it could also make us an example at the higher levels. Our challenge is – how do we meet the goal of doubling the rate of treatments?”
The group’s second goal is to build additional community engagement and the public’s understanding of and realistic expectations about the need to treat forests to reduce fire risk. The goal will be met through public outreach educating residents about fire adaptive communities.
“Everybody is speaking the same language in the county – we’re communicating what the fire danger is,” said Salida Fire Dept. Captain Chris Bainbridge.
The third goal of the Community Wildfire Protection Plan seems self-explanatory: safe and effective wildfire response. The planning group was unanimous in their support for collaborative preparedness for severe fires and evacuation plans.
During the discussion of this goal, the group pointed out that some areas of the county exhibit higher fire danger than others; The Chalk Creek Canyon drainage is one area expressly pointed out because it has a single evacuation route and a heavy fuel load.
The group spent significant time discussing their fourth goal; proactive steps for the aftermath of fires, including post-fire recovery, flood and sediment control. The continuing Hayden Pass post-fire challenges experienced by Coaldale-area residents are an ongoing reminder of how seriously the planning for the recovery phase is.
Both Chaffee County Commissioners at the meeting said they shared this concern. “In the Hayden Pass fire, the post-event flooding had major impacts,” said Commissioner Greg Felt. “The water went right through a house – the water quality, the post effects – can have more of an impact than the fire further up the hill.”
Commissioner Keith Baker pointed out the post-fire effects aren’t always understood by residents. “In the California fires this year, people refuse to see they can’t have access to where their house used to be. FEMA won’t let them live there because post-fire recovery is a monumental task, there are mudslides, contaminated water, toxic things. So public acceptance of zoning and code changes related to this are important. This is both planning and community engagement.”
One person who attended the meeting reminded the group that fires aren’t singular events, they are yearslong disasters, while another pointed out that all proactive steps needed to have measurements regarding safety and effectiveness.
Chaffee County Emergency Management Director Phil Graham outlined how this partnership meshes with the county emergency plan, especially if dealing with post-fire situations.
The fifth goal focused on wise use of any potential funding from the Chaffee Common Ground Fund, resulting from the passage of the Ballot issue 1A county sales tax in the November general election.
“This is a goal to align the funding sources,” said Salida District Forester Damon Lange. “Say we’ve got this project, we have to decide – what is the best funding source to handle this particular project.”
“We need to have community support,” said Envision cochair Rick Hum. “We think Chaffee Common Ground funding is just one piece. This should be a larger goal to develop an overall funding strategy.”
In addition to the plan, the partnership will include community transparency, so the public can understand the reasons for wildfire planning. The watchwords say organizers will be collaboration, development of new funding sources, and improved computer technology for planning. That collaboration with the public begins this week, as this partnership has received a grant from the Colorado Dept. of Local Affairs to seek public input on how the partnership should use the Chaffee Common ground funding earmarked to strengthen forest health.
Using that grant, the partnership has created an online Chaffee Wildfire Survey for the public to share their concerns and suggestions regarding community wildfire preparedness. Follow this link to access the survey beginning Feb. 12: Chaffee Wildfire Survey <https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/ChaffeeWildfire2019>
The survey will be available to the public until Feb. 28. Following the survey, public meetings will be held to review the results, allowing residents to view computer models mapping high fire risk.
“The process of developing a CWPP can help us clarify and refine community priorities to help protect life, property and infrastructure,” said Envision co-lead Cindy Williams. “We’ll help citizens have valuable discussions about forest management option – how to prepare for the implications of post-fire flooding on our water resources.”
Participating agencies — a broad spectrum of federal, state and local resources:
United States Forest Service Salida District Ranger
Pike and San Isabel National Forests & Cimarron and Commanche National grasslands
Bureau of Land Management-Royal Gorge Field Office
CSU Colorado Forest Restoration Institute
Colorado State Forest Service
Colorado Natural Heritage Programming
Wildfire Research Team (WiRē)-Rocky Mountain Research Station
Colorado Parks and Wildlife
Buena Vista Fire Departments
Chaffee County Fire Protection District
Chaffee County Office of Emergency Management-Royal
Envision Chaffee County
Central Colorado Conservancy
Board of Chaffee County Commissioners