Forest management and homeowner vigilance can mitigate wildfire

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file photo/Mike Wilson | The East Troublesome Fire fills the sky with smoke in October, 2020, when it ravaged over 193,000 acres and destroyed nearly 500 structures.
file photo/Mike Wilson | The East Troublesome Fire fills the sky with smoke in October, 2020, when it ravaged over 193,000 acres and destroyed nearly 500 structures.

by Meg Soyers
Smoky skies and fire bans–a familiar reality for Grand County residents lately. Wildfire season has begun early this year, though some residents are still recovering from the devastation of the East Troublesome Fire last fall.

One such resident is Schelly Olson, currently the Assistant Chief of the Grand Fire Protection District. She is also the Board Chair for the Grand County Wildfire Council (GCWC), which she founded in 2013, proving that even those most experienced were stunned by the mega fire.

Olson and her husband lived in Winding River Villa, next to Winding River Ranch in Grand Lake. “We didn’t have enough time to pack, so we didn’t get anything out,” Olson said. “So that’s a lesson learned from somebody who went through it and lost everything. Mitigation is huge, but so is preparation.”

East Troublesome was the second largest fire in state history, burning nearly 400 homes and 193,812 acres. About 25% of
those homes were uninsured.

“Unfortunately, the East Troublesome Fire storm surprised everyone. But one of my biggest messages is that not every fire is going to be like the East Troublesome Fire,” Olson emphasized. “We need to prepare for the other 99% of the fires in Grand County. We can take action around our homes as individuals, and also as subdivisions and communities in Grand County as a whole.” So what can individuals do to prepare this year, for whatever fire may come?

Fire mitigation at the individual level
First, Olson recommends that residents sign up for CodeRED and get the CodeRED app on their phone. This cellular notification system informs users of emergencies such as evacuation orders and fires. Residents can also view the county’s evacuation map, updated last week by the Sheriff’s Office, on www.co.grand.co.us/EvacMap.

“If it’s fire season, pack your heirlooms,” Olson added. “If there’s something you can’t live without, make sure that it can go with you.” Olson also advised residents to meet with their insurance agent. “Ask them, ‘If I’m in a fire tonight, what would you do for me? What does my policy say? Or what should I change?’”

Since East Troublesome, some insurance companies will not insure Grand Lake homeowners unless their lot is clearcut, so staying on top of new policies is paramount.

“It really starts with landowners working on their home, then outward [to take] responsibility for their property and mitigate their risks,” added Zach Wehr, of the Colorado State Forest Service’s Granby Field Office. The CSFS is in charge of fire mitigation, which they accomplish through forest management and assisting landowners protecting their homes.

“There’s several ways for a home to be lost,” Wehr stated. “There’s the classic notion of a fire moving towards a house and just burning it down, but what we’re seeing a lot more of now is homes [being burned] from embers moving ahead of the fire. It can be a tiny little ember, but it’s shot forward, landing by a house. Then it can connect to a porch, or dry wood, or leaves. That’s why a lot of these homes are being lost.”

Wehr stresses that residents must protect their entire “home ignition zone.” This newly developed concept requires treating both the physical structure and all the land surrounding it. “It starts by looking at combustible materials at the home, then moving out to different zones to treat vegetation,” Wehr explained. “That’s something you can do to manage risk right on your property.”
He added that this also segues into the larger context of working with neighbors to mitigate on a larger scale. “After a fire occurs, there’s a lot of […] people interested in doing work locally. If you live in a closely packed neighborhood, you want to make sure you can get them to do the work as well,” Wehr recommended.

Mitigation at the neighborhood and community level

Fortunately, there are several HOAs in the county that are working on mitigation together.

“They organize activities and will apply for grants to remove the trees and treat their acreage. There’s been some good success stories of people working together,” Wehr stated. “The Grand County Wildfire Council here is a great avenue for aggregating resources for mitigation and connecting them to HOAs and individual landowners. It’s the best conduit we have.”

In addition to Board Chair Schelly Olson, the GCWC has a diverse group of members from the CSFS, USFS, BLM, Northern Water, and Denver Water. “All of us partners are working together in an unprecedented way right now,” Wehr said. The GCWC offers a cost-share program, for both preemptive fire mitigation and recovery work after fire damage.

“The Grand Foundation Wildfire Emergency fund is helping people post-fire,” Olson said. “Anybody affected by the Williams Fork
or East Troublesome Fire who has burned, hazardous trees, we help them get those off their property so they can live safely.”

The GCWC also organizes Chipping Days during the summer. “It’s held throughout the county and they have different stops. A landowner can remove smaller trees and branches on their property and bring that to them to be chipped,” Wehr said. “It’s a good outlet for folks who don’t have anywhere else to take their material.”

The next Chipping Day will be August 21 at Grand Fire District in Granby, from 10am-3pm.

The GCWC is an essential organization in the county’s battle against wildfires, and they are also battling for funding. As a non-profit, GCWC relies solely on help from self-sacrificing community members.

“There are 7 of us board members; we are all volunteers with one or two other jobs. We need to create a sustainable income,” Olson explained, adding that members are hoping for a mill levy in the upcoming elections to fund their mitigation efforts.

“We also want to work with the county to get an executive director who can do this full-time, because it is a full-time job,” she stated.

Olson explained that neighboring counties, such as Eagle and Summit, have wildfire councils funded by the county. “They’re able to be sustainable and get a lot of work done. But we need to do a lot more work in Grand County,” she stated.

“We have people who really want to be involved and make things happen, we just need more support locally.”

GCWC is also applying for grants, such as CSFS’s Forest Restoration & Wildfire Risk Mitigation Grant. The grant program supports fuels reduction and forest health projects for Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) areas, like Grand County. The grant is state-wide and very competitive, so GCWC is waiting to see if they will receive it

Mitigation at the national level
Fire mitigation requires individual efforts, community group efforts, and national efforts to be successful. There are several national organizations that communities can become a part of. One of these is the National Fire Protection Association, which has created Firewise USA. This recognition program helps at-risk areas like Grand County organize.

“With Firewise in the community, we can organize the wildfire council, fire district, state forest service, and community members,” Olson explained. “[Firewise] looks at building construction, egress, addressing, vegetation, and water supply for community assessment.” Then communities can apply online to receive the Firewise USA designation.

“It’s a really great tool for engagement in communities. It helps everyone get on the same page to create a plan and prioritize projects,” Olson said. Currently, there are 10 neighborhoods in the county which have the Firewise designation: one in Fraser, three in Tabernash, one in Grand Lake, four in Granby, and one in Kremmling.

Olson explained that the next stage for Grand County after the Firewise Designation
is to become ‘fire adapted.’

GCWC is currently a member of Fire Adapted Colorado (FACO). Olson explains that community members must ask, “How can we create a Grand County that is fire adapted and able to live with wildfire? How can we have a wildfire come through our community, but we don’t lose property and no one dies? How can we bounce back and be resilient?”

Fortunately, organizations like the GCWC and Firewise are in place to help answer these questions. “Mitigation is an on-going project. It’s overwhelming in a giant scope, but we together can create an action plan!” Olson declared.

Forest Management and Fuels Reduction

In addition to assisting communities and homeowners, organizations must also manage the complex forest system that surrounds them, working with the environment, not against it.

Organizations like the CSFS and USFS, through partnerships with logging companies, manage the forests to mitigate fire. These include fuels reduction tactics such as controlled burns, selective thinning, and clearcutting, meaning removing all larger overstory trees. Over the past few decades, there has been a hands-off approach to logging in Colorado, meaning many of the lodgepole pine decimated by beetle kill have remained as fuel for fires.

The debate over whether clearcutting mitigates fires or not rages as strongly as wildfires rage through a forest, with proponents on either side. However, there is a consensus that clearcutting benefits some tree species but not others. Ponderosa pine, common
on the Front Range, doesn’t do well with clearcutting. But lodgepole pine, the dominant species in Grand County, does benefit.
When CSFS logs lodgepole pine, they remove the beetle kill plus the intact overstory. “If we left the green trees, they would just blow over, because lodgepole pine has such shallow root systems,” Wehr stated. “They have ‘strength in numbers’ and are very prone to wind events. They don’t do well if you do a selective cut, so we implement clearcutting.”

Interestingly, the tree’s cones naturally reproduce in a fire. “A clearcut mimics the effects of a natural fire and the conditions a lodgepole pine needs to reproduce,” Wehr explained. “They need an extreme form of heat to open and release the seeds. Once the cones are exposed to sunlight in a clearcut, they open up.”

Wehr added that during a clearcut, they do preserve the regeneration that’s coming in. “In our contracts, we require our contractors to protect as many little trees as they can during harvest,” Wehr stated. This method of saving young trees is called ‘advanced regeneration’.

Forest regrowth after the fire Foresters are also trying to predict how the forest will regrow after the fires. “Past fires give a historical context to predict what aspen and lodgepole pine growth will be like,” Wehr said. “But every landscape and forest condition is different. There are lot of factors, including the physical behavior of the fire itself.”

As for lodgepole pine regrowth, “it’s a bit of a wait-and-see game,” Wehr said. Generally, trees take a few years to reestablish after a fire. “In the higher severity areas with a lot of beetle kill, time will tell if we will have regeneration or not,” Wehr predicted. “Other areas will have no problem growing back from the natural cone crop that was there.”

Lodgepole are a resilient and fire-adapted species, as are aspen. “Aspens tend to grow fast and die fast. They’re very susceptible to fire so the overstory trees will die, but they have an intact root system underground,” Wehr explained. “To the outside observer’s eye, you’ll see all the dead trees, but their roots are still living. Next year, they’ll release a hormone to stimulate the roots to grow and sprout new trees.”

Many aspen trees were impacted in the East Troublesome Fire, so Wehr is expecting to see a lot of regrowth. In fact, it might even stimulate a large expansion. “They’re going to grow back and probably do even better than before!” Wehr predicted. “They’re very fire-adapted; they positively benefit from fire.”

It may take years, or it may take decades, but the forest will eventually rise from the ashes of East Troublesome. People will rise too, but their path to recovery is more complicated. Schelly Olson explained how going through their home’s wreckage last year felt like she “would never be whole again.”

“We used shifters, but even if you did find something, you can’t do anything with it, because it’s destroyed,” Olson said. However, she did recover her grandmother’s antique silver. “I found a lot of that. It was black and tarnished, but my family cleaned it up and it looks like new!” she exclaimed. “I had my brother make jewelry out of it.”

This was one literal ‘silver lining’ for someone recovering from the fire.

Hopefully, there will be more ‘silver linings’ this season, since people have learned from the experience
of the East Troublesome Fire.

For WUI areas like Grand County, fire is more than a potential risk, it is a reality. “We live in a fire-adapted environment and a fire-adapted forest,” Wehr stated. “It’s important to mitigate your property and stay vigilant with your fire management. It might not happen for a couple years, but we are going to have another fire. It’s not a matter of if, but when.”

In an era of mega fires, Grand residents must become ‘fire adapted,’ just like the area they call home.
For more information, explore any of the following resources:

• Fire Adapted Colorado: fireadaptedco.org.
• Grand County Wildfire Council: bewildfireready.org
• Grand Fire Protection District: grandfire.org
• Grand County Evacuation Map: co.grand.co.us/EvacMap
• FireWise USA: nfpa.org/Public-Education/Fire-causes-and-risks/Wildfire/Firewise-USA
• Colorado State Forest Service: csfs.colostate.edu
• US Forest Service: fs.usda.gov