A group of Gold Hill residents calls themselves the Gold Hill Mountain Stewards. Over the last year and a half, these stewards honored their name. In establishing gravel “non-combustible zones” around individual houses, clearing deadwood from private properties and lessening fuel loads on common lands, they modeled how a community can lower its collective fire risk through cooperative action.
“[Fire mitigation] is a community issue,” said Virginia Schultz, a resident of Gold Hill and a Stewards’ volunteer. “We all need to do it together. If something is done on an individual property, it helps the whole town.”
The Lefthand Fire of 2020 caused evacuations in Gold Hill. Realizing their community was at risk, the Mountain Stewards applied for a 2020 Fires Relief Fund grant from the Community Foundation Boulder County. Accepted through the Gold Hill Town Meeting, a nonprofit, the stewards were given almost $30,000.
The goal of the grant was “fuel reduction on low-income, elderly, and disabled properties,” because while Gold Hill is nestled in a fire-prone landscape, the expense of mitigation has limited such efforts.
According to Marcus Moench, another Stewards member and chair of the Gold Hill Town Meeting, a number of community members had gone through the county’s Wildfire Partners Program but hadn’t completed the recommended home-hardening. High cost prevented action.
“And them not [mitigating] raises the risk level for everybody,” Moench said.
The Wildfire Partners Program is a Boulder County service that sends fire mitigation experts to private properties. After surveying a home and its surrounding landscape, the program offers a personalized plan for how homeowners can protect their property from wildfire. Though it once operated solely in unincorporated western Boulder County, the program expanded into the unincorporated east after the Marshall Fire.
After getting a Wildfire Partners’ personalized plan, mitigation is up to the homeowner. This, Schultz said, is a problem. While it’s great to be told what to go out and do, some people need “support in the going out and doing it part.”
The Community Foundation grant was to be used from May of 2021 through August of 2022. In that time, the Mountain Stewards engaged their community in a series of fire mitigation events to encourage the going out and doing — like renting communal dumpsters for deadwood removal and offering fire education days. The stewards also helped pay for, and complete, mitigation work on homes that couldn’t otherwise afford it.
According to Moench, visibility of the events catalyzed action as much as financial aid. When you see grass in the town meadow cut to stubble, or your neighbors hauling slash to shared dumpsters, “you have people hopping in and saying ‘There’s three dumpsters? Well, of course I’ll haul my stuff down there,’” he said.
Renting dumpsters and buying other materials for mitigation — like gravel around the base of homes — accounted for almost $10,000 of grant spending. In fall 2021, home assessments from a Colorado State Forest Service representative cost another grand. These assessments, however, offered a focus for TeamWorks, a collaborative program between Teens Inc. — a youth corps based in Nederland — and Lincoln Hills Cares “that hires youth from urban and rural areas to work together on conservation projects.” TeamWorks put in four days of labor for $6,400.
In those four days, July 11-14, 2022, the teenagers installed gravel around homes flagged by the State Forest rep, establishing non-combustible zones essential for fire-risk reduction. The teens also moved slash for those who couldn’t, and weed-whacked a meadow that might chaperone an ambitious wildfire from one part of town to another.
For projects the teens couldn’t complete, like downing and chipping large trees, the grant helped fund a local tree company for just under $6,000.
Essential administrative aid
Both Moench and Schultz said the project wouldn’t have been successful without guidance from the Boulder Watershed Collective. A local nonprofit with roots in mining reclamation, the Watershed Collective prides itself in facilitation between private landowners and broader efforts.
“That’s one of the main things we do: Work with private landowners to develop multi-property forest health and fire mitigation projects,” said Maya MacHamer, co-founder and director of the Boulder Watershed Collective. At the time of the Gold Hill Mountain Stewards’ endeavor, the collective was doing large forest health projects on land adjacent to Gold Hill, funded by the Forest Service and Natural Resources Conservation Services.
“The watershed is only able to be so successful [in Gold Hill] because there are incredible people like Virginia and Marcus,” MacHamer said. “The community is so supportive of these projects.”
The community put in nearly 280 hours of volunteer work.
MacHamer said the main contribution of the Watershed Collective to Gold Hill’s efforts was logistical navigation. Because volunteers made up most of the workforce, the collective filled the administrative gap of hiring Teamworks, working with contractors and purchasing necessary materials.
One barrier faced in mountain communities is securing contractors to complete mitigation work. If a job is too small, craftsmen won’t waste their time driving into the mountains when they could land a larger, higher paying project in town. With the Mountain Stewards providing initial outreach, however, the Watershed Collective was able to get a group of private homeowners to combine many little jobs into one, making a trip to the mountain town worth a contractor’s time. An example of this was flashing: installing a metal barrier around the base of a home to prevent embers from gaining entry. It’s not a big job, but an important mitigation technique. The contractor the collective hired installed flashing on multiple homes in one day.
“[Residents] will get home assessments from Wildfire Partners or another forester and it feels very overwhelming and very expensive,” MacHamer said. “When you take some of the logistical coordination off their plate, it feels less overwhelming and they’re more willing to mobilize their own funds.”
The final report for the grant shows that homeowners spent $25,000 of their own money on mitigation work after receiving a nudge from the stewards, nearly doubling the effect of the grant.
Yet both MacHamer and Moench said the Community Foundation grant was an outlier. When it comes to fire mitigation, most grants go to behemoth forest efforts on huge swaths of land. For private homes and smaller community lands, few options exist.
In the November 2022 election, Gold Hill voted to pass a mill levy increase to better fund their volunteer fire district. Still, much of the work done by the Mountain Stewards wouldn’t have qualified for funding by the levy. It’s possible, however, that with more resources available, the Gold Hill fire district will be able to lead future mitigation efforts.
“I’m hoping that passage of the mill levy increases will catalyze the types of changes in the fire district that both encourage and enable them to play significantly larger — ideally leadership — roles in future projects of this sort,” Moench said.
For those interested in undertaking such projects in their own community, a good place to start would be contacting the Boulder Watershed Collective at email@example.com.