Boulder County ballot measure 1A passed overwhelmingly in November, promising to raise upwards of $11 million each year for fire mitigation efforts through a new sales tax. Now that it’s time to begin allocating the money, however, the measure’s vague language is providing a foothold for tension.
Broad priorities outlined in the measure included protecting the county’s water sources, improving forest and grassland health, and “proactively” addressing the “increasing risk of climate-driven wildfires.”
To begin meeting these sweeping goals, the county approved 12 positions it will begin filling as soon as this month. The hires include fire mitigation specialists, a forestry planner and a chipping coordinator. Nine will be funded through the new tax, accounting for about $780,000 in 2023.
The county plans to funnel the remaining money through its Community Planning and Permitting Department, in part to do home assessments and forest thinning that have historically focused on the mountains. Parks and Open Space will partner in the effort.
But Marshall Fire recovery groups have a different idea for how 1A money should be spent.
Namely, they first want a fire mitigation “vision” established for the funds — a publicly communicated guiding philosophy that would then be implemented by the county. Without this transparency, the recovery groups worry mitigation efforts will continue to put mountain communities ahead of grasslands.
“One of the key wake-up calls of the Marshall Fire is that we need to expand mitigation and preparedness efforts to ALL of Boulder County — including the flatlands that are home to 85% of the county’s population,” the groups wrote in an open letter to county commissioners last September.
The behind-the-scenes funding dispute comes 14 months after the Marshall Fire burned down and damaged more than a thousand homes, illustrating the danger of living so close to flammable landscape as the planet warms. It is the latest in a series of discussions about how to direct public money to best protect more Boulder County communities — in the mountains and the plains — from wildfires that will only grow larger and more intense.
It also shows how the recovery groups have become a vocal constituency not just in rebuilding plans, but in shoring up resilience across the county. As often happens after a local disaster, the groups — Marshall Together, Superior Rising, Unincorporated Boulder County Marshall Fire Restoration Committee, Marshall ROC and Louisville Neighborhood Preparedness Roundtable — came together to support their cohorts. Many members of the groups lost their homes.
“I feel like this is going to be a missed opportunity if we don’t start correctly,” said Cheryl Gordon, a founder of the Unincorporated Boulder County Marshall Fire Restoration Committee. Some of Gordon’s emails to county commissioners bear the insignia of four other Marshall Fire recovery groups, suggesting these worries are not hers alone.
“Why didn’t we start by having a roundtable and figuring out what are the risks, what are the gaps, what do we already have going [in terms of fire mitigation in Boulder County]?” she said. “And then build out a plan with a hierarchy of projects so we do the most critical projects first?”
Boulder County does have a Community Wildfire Protection Plan, which could be seen as a mitigation vision of sorts. Established in 2011, the plan lists goals to “save lives, protect property, reduce risk, enhance the environment and promote community.”
The county hopes to update the plan soon, according to a press release. It has applied for a federal grant to fund the update, stating, “if the county receives this grant, work to update the [protection] plan will begin in 2023 and the update will help guide the implementation of 1A.”
Seth McKinney, fire management officer for the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office, told Boulder Reporting Lab he has thus far not been involved with, or invited into, conversations around 1A funds. “I think there is a lot of stuff going on in the background, or still being figured out,” he said. “But I haven’t been part of the conversation as of yet.”
Claire Levy, a Boulder County commissioner, said that though the recovery groups have educated themselves significantly, certain bureaucratic first steps, like hiring new staff, are necessary to ensure the new funds are well utilized.
“We needed to have this internal infrastructure available so that we can do the education and outreach that the community has been asking for,” Levy told Boulder Reporting Lab. “There may be a misunderstanding about the capacity of our existing staff.”
There also might be a misunderstanding of how far the 1A funds can go.
The $11 million raised by the new sales tax could be as much as 1000% more than the county previously had for mitigation efforts, said Jim Webster, project manager for the county’s Wildfire Partners program.
Yet according to Brian Oliver, Boulder Fire-Rescue’s wildland chief, what that money can accomplish will depend on where and how it’s spent. If used to underground power lines, it isn’t much. “But if you spend that money on home assessments and give homeowners the information and resources they need to improve their readiness, $11 million can go a really long way,” he said.
Wildfire Partners a main benefactor
Giving homeowners information on mitigation is one of the county’s main focuses. Mentioned directly in the ballot measure’s description, Wildfire Partners — a county mitigation program that has, until recently, operated solely in unincorporated western Boulder County — is one of the main benefactors of the new tax.
Located within the county’s Community Planning and Permitting Department, the Wildfire Partners program has historically gone from home to home to help property owners understand the fire risk on their property. Looking to use 1A funds to expand the program into eastern Boulder County, this mitigation guidance could motivate residents to fix problematic landscaping choices, like wooden fences, which aided the Marshall Fire. And Webster said that with its staff capacity “more than doubled,” the program will not just expand its reach into eastern Boulder, but also vary its education techniques.
In addition to continuing home-to-home assessments in high-risk areas, Webster said the program will be working “neighborhood wide and community wide” to educate the public on fire mitigation. He said two of the new hires are for fire mitigation community outreach.
Gordon voiced concern that by supporting Wildfire Partners with 1A money, along with forestry groups and nonprofits that operate mainly in the foothills, Boulder County wildfire mitigation will turn into a competition of “mountains vs. flatlands.” This concern was echoed in an open letter, signed by five Marshall Fire Recovery groups, and sent to county commissioners on Feb. 1, 2023.
Commissioner Levy responded that if Wildfire Partners remained as it is, of course it wouldn’t be a good vehicle for providing mitigation across the county, but she added that “the purpose of 1A was so we could expand what has been a very successful program in the mountains.
“It’s not going to look exactly the same [on the plains],” she continued. “Because the wildfire risks and the wildfire mitigation tools and techniques are going to be different.”
A wildfire that reaches homes in suburbia is unlike one consuming structures in the mountains. When homes are near one another, radiant heat can set a chain of structures ablaze — meaning community building codes and cooperation are of great importance.
Oliver, Boulder Fire-Rescue’s wildland chief, said that despite home assessments being a valuable resource, “an assessment does nothing if the information goes unused.
“There needs to be follow up and some sort of accountability,” he said.
At the Feb. 23 city council meeting, the City of Boulder’s fire chief, Michael Calderazzo, seconded this, saying that while Boulder Fire-Rescue will also be focused on detailed home assessments in 2023, they want to also help with implementation.
“We’d like to help [homeowners] actually implement those [mitigation techniques] rather than say, ‘Hey, here’s what you got to do. Go figure it out on your own,’” Calderazzo said.
Follow-up and accountability is what Gordon and the recovery groups would like to see from the county on 1A spending. With much of the funding going to the county’s Planning and Permitting Department, there’s concern that the public will be left in the dark on what the county is doing for fire mitigation, and what they’re doing with the $11 million.
“I’m a fan of the sheriff taking the lead on wildfire mitigation and preparedness in Boulder County,” she said. “It’s a singular office and it’s the sheriff that’s always spoken to the public about wildfire.”
But commissioner Levy said the sheriff is busy handling the county’s emergency response. “And [1A] is really much more about what the built environment looks like,” Levy said, justifying much of the money flowing through the Planning and Permitting department.
But for some, it’s all just taking too long.
“As the county spends endless hours on hiring new people and designing their complex grant program, Louisville and Superior are rebuilding with unsafe materials due to the higher cost of fire-resistant materials,” Gordon said. “Addressing these types of immediate needs for 1A funding instead of hiring sorters, foresters and chippers might have made more sense in the long run.”