Boulder County Commissioner Matt Jones fought a fire that was stunted by mitigation. Courtesy of Matt Jones

As fire season engulfs the full year, as homes are built on landscapes made to burn, as water becomes more precious but more likely to be sullied by ash, this November residents of Boulder County will decide whether fire mitigation is worth an additional sales tax.

County issue 1A would add a .1% sales tax to Boulderites’ purchases. From a penny on every 10 dollars spent, roughly $11 million in additional funding would help Boulder County prepare for the next fire. And there will be a next fire. 

“These are fire-adapted ecosystems,” said Chris Wanner, Boulder’s vegetation stewardship senior manager. “We can make them more resilient and decrease some of the intensity of a fire, but these areas are made to burn, and they will burn.”

Unknown is the level of destruction future fires will bring.

“We’re in a different time,” said Matt Jones, a Boulder County Commissioner. “When I started doing fire work in 1993, a big fire was 10,000 acres. Two years ago we had three fires, each about 200,000 acres.”

Jones worked for Open Space and Mountain Parks in Boulder in the 90s. While his title was environmental planner, he also volunteered on wildfire efforts.

“I worked mostly on prescribed burns,” he said. “But [I also worked on] some wildland fire.”

On one such fire, the Walker Ranch Fire of 2000, burned over Jones on Flagstaff Road while he tried to rehabilitate a pump on his fire engine “that wouldn’t draw for some reason.” 

“I kept looking over my shoulder at the leaves spontaneously combusting, at the 100 foot flames, wondering why I was doing the work I was doing.”

Jones and his team used an escape route to get to a safe distance, repaired the pump, and returned to meet the fire. But when they got back to the front, another engine was already drowning the flames. Having burned onto an area that had been thinned and prescribed burned, the 100 foot flames reduced to one foot flickers that quickly succumbed to dousing.

“It works,” Jones said of mitigation. “I became a convert.”

Mitigation must be done before fires arrive. Paying for it, therefore, can be difficult to swallow. But in the long run, mitigation pays for itself.

“The cheapest thing you can do is mitigate,” Jones said. “It is far more expensive to try to put out a fire and then restore after a fire. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure in this case.”

This photo was taken 30 minutes after the fire burned over Jones’s engine. The thinned area stole the fire’s enthusiasm. “Mitigation works,” Jones said. Courtesy of Matt Jones

Forest thinning is one mitigation technique that would be funded by the sales tax. Like the project completed this summer near Chautauqua, forest thinning — and prescribed burns when possible — mimic low-grade fires that historically burned the ponderosa forests around Boulder every 10 to 20 years. 

Thinning a forest, or burning its understory, lowers the ferocity of future wildfires that will burn through that area. Not only are lower-intensity fires easier to manage, they also act as fertilizers for the landscape rather than sterilizers. Low-grade fires release nutrients. High temperature fires cook the soil.

Tax would shore up Wildfire Partners program for homeowners

But forests are only one piece of the fire mitigation puzzle. People’s homes also need to be made more resilient, or “hardened.”

“Unlike [for] floods or other natural disasters, we can harden homes [against wildfire],” said Jim Webster, coordinator of the Wildfire Partners program. “People know the story of the three little pigs. We also want to build houses out of brick, not sticks and straw.”

The Wildfire Partners program is a county endeavor that helps homeowners establish an individualized plan for reducing their property’s wildfire risk. It used to work exclusively in unincorporated western Boulder county. The Marshall Fire changed that. Over the last several months, the program has been testing a pilot program in unincorporated eastern Boulder county, where prairie grass proved a shepherd of catastrophe.

“Grass fires are different than forest fires, and the housing patterns [on the plains] are different,” Webster said in a previous interview. “On the plains, we have more subdivisions, denser communities. There are mitigation measures you can take no matter your plot size, but you don’t control as much of your risk if you have a smaller lot. So it’s [about] working with your neighbors.”

The .1% tax would further fund the Wildfire Partners program, making the eastern push permanent, and help neighbors cooperate to defend their communities. It would also potentially introduce the program into town centers, where mindful landscaping choices are still necessary. As the climate continues to change and fires burn with greater gusto, we’re all at risk.

“A big concern is not necessarily the flaming [wildfire] front impacting the edge of the city,” said Brian Oliver, Boulder Fire-Rescue’s Wildland Division Chief. “It’s the embers landing in receptive fuels somewhere in the city and going undetected, starting a house on fire. Then you get into that Marshall Fire scenario where it’s no longer a wildfire but instead a home-to-home ignition problem.”

Money to prevent waste piles from polluting water post-fire

Water is not forgotten by the tax. Maya MacHamer, co-founder of the Boulder Watershed Collective, works mostly in watersheds above Boulder on mine reclamation projects — cleaning up old mining sites to lessen their impact on the surrounding landscape, especially water sources.

When fires burn over old, unreclaimed waste piles, they destabilize the heavy metals within. Securing these sites before a fire can prevent toxins from rushing downstream after. Funding, however, is an obstacle.

“I definitely feel the need for funds in all the work we’re doing,” MacHamer said. “There are state and federal funds available right now, but all of that funding requires a match, and that is very hard for us to come up with right now.”

Local funding could allow the collective to leverage those state and federal funds. The sales tax could provide that funding.

For Jones, the extra $11 million represents a step towards adapting to the world we’ve created.

“This is climate resilience at its essence,” said Jones.

Tim Drugan

Tim Drugan covers wildfires, water and other climate change-related issues for Boulder Reporting Lab with a focus on explanatory and solutions journalism. He also is the lead writer of BRL Today, our morning newsletter. Tim grew up in New Hampshire and graduated from UNH with a degree in English/Journalism.

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