Jefferson County’s mountain communities are literally a spark away from calamity, and it will take some serious money and coordination to avoid the worst of it. That is the takeaway from the …
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According to the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, a 100,000-acre wildfire in western Jeffco could result in the evacuation of 60,000 people; the destruction of 10,000 homes and 100 businesses; and an estimated minimum of $5 billion in property loss.
Jefferson County’s mountain communities are literally a spark away from calamity, and it will take some serious money and coordination to avoid the worst of it.
That is the takeaway from the Jefferson County’s Wildfire Risk Reduction Task Force’s report, which was presented to the Board of County Commissioners Nov. 11.
As noted by the task force report, the Evergreen and Conifer areas actually rank as the worst spots in the state in terms of wildfire risk, according to insurance firm Verisk. In fact, the areas made the top 10 of Verisk’s nationwide assessment.
“The risk is huge,” said County Commissioner Leslie Dahlkemper, who spearheaded the taskforce.
The task force — comprised of elected officials, fire fighters, planning experts and community representatives — was formed in October of last year to look closer at the problem and find some solutions. The task force divided into working groups, focusing on three goals: Mitigation, community education and revenue stream.
Much of Jeffco, particularly on its western half, falls within the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) — places where uninhabited and possibly heavily vegetated land comes up against developed land. The task force report notes that the county’s dense forest, dry, high wind, and a lot of lightning make it a question of “not if, but when Jeffco will see its next major wildland fire.”
“This isn’t about preventing wildfire,” but preparing for it, and mitigating its impact,” Mitigation Working Group Chair Garrett Stevens said.
Unfortunately, Stevens reported that the pace of mitigation efforts (clearing deadfall and thinning dangerously dense forest land) is “not where it should be.”
The reasons behind this are many. The per-acre cost of mitigation work is high. The number of contractors to do the work are low. Also, the market demand for all that wood is low.
Stevens said there also needs to be more public and political support behind prescribed burns.
The mitigation group’s number one recommendation is to fix a glaring issue: There is no comprehensive tracking or coordination of current mitigation efforts.
Citizen appointee to the task force Susan Eagle helped present the Community Education working group’s finding. Among them was also a note about a lack of one cohesive location for information. Eagle noted that county property owners lacked an easy-to-find place to find wildfire mitigation information, and some of the information that was out there sometimes was contradictory.
The group recommended that the county house a definitive wildfire prevention and mitigation information page, that a comprehensive distribution list of organizations, HOA’s and business groups be created and maintained and that regular and timely mitigation and risk prevention information be shared regularly.
The revenue group echoed many of the things the mitigation group had, noting how the lack of a comprehensive list of where mitigation had or hadn’t taken place, and a lack of better coordination between multiple mitigation agencies, made it harder to efficiently use funding.
The group’s four recommendations were: Better define and map WUI areas in the county; do a much-needed update to the county’s 2011 Community Wildfire Protection Plan; hire a grant writer dedicated to seek out additional money for mitigation; and explore a tax option.
The report made note of the wildfire mitigation property tax measure passed by Summit County last year with 78% voter approval.
The task force has requested to stay active into 2021, at which time the task force would transition into a standing commission, to continue to study and make recommendations regarding Jeffco’s wildfire mitigation efforts. Board members Casey Tighe and Libby Szabo both concurred with Dahlkemper about supporting those next steps.
The task force will reconvene in Jan. 2021," Dahlkemper said by email when asked about next steps. "We'll flesh out some of the recommendations, and other recommendations will require us to explore funding or enhanced collaboration."
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