Mitigating a home against wildfire isn’t cheap. This leads many homeowners to skip it and hope for the best. But hope-based mitigation can lead to devastating outcomes. A wooden-shingle roof, for instance, can create embers the wind will carry throughout the neighborhood, igniting even homes that have been mitigated.
In Boulder’s mountain’s communities, nonprofits are now stepping in to help mitigate neighborhoods house by house, overcoming barriers of cost and logistics that governmental entities so far have done little to address.
Such was the goal behind recent efforts in Coal Creek Canyon. Mid-August found three nonprofits working to protect homes from future flames. Similar to a project last year in Gold Hill, where members of a Nederland-based youth corps cleared flammable material from around homes in need, this Coal Creek initiative was spearheaded by the Boulder Watershed Collective — a nonprofit that started in mining reclamation but has expanded into forest health.
“People seem extremely receptive to anything that’s offered with wildfire mitigation,” said Maya MacHamer, the collective’s director. If money and planning help is provided, she said, they’re especially eager.
Another nonprofit involved was Saws and Slaws, a group of locals who volunteer on community mitigation projects, using chainsaws to cut down potentially fire-promoting trees before gathering for a shared meal — including, but not limited to, coleslaw. The third nonprofit was Team Rubicon, a national veteran-led organization founded to focus on disaster response that now also works on disaster prevention.
Over three days of work among the organizations, more than 50 volunteers were deployed for over 700 volunteer hours. The results showed the value of these nonprofits and the enormity of the problem they’re trying to tackle.
In the admirable effort, only 11 homes received fire mitigation in a fire district that has roughly 4,000 residents. This mitigation included putting rock around the base of homes to prevent embers from setting the siding ablaze, and replacing vents with ones that won’t let embers sneak into the attic to ignite the structure from within.
Because of the overgrowth of Colorado’s forests, Team Rubicon also removed 17,000 cubic feet of slash from around the Coal Creek homes to mitigate just over eight acres of forest.
“There’s so much to do, that we can’t get done what we hope to get done,” said Jody Dickson, Saws and Slaws chair of the board. “When I walked away from [another] Saws and Slaws project,” she said, “I felt bad.”
Homes in Boulder’s mountain communities are vulnerable to wildfires thanks to overzealous fire suppression and a warming planet. Climate change will likely further dry out Colorado’s overgrown forests and enable pests to kill more trees, providing fuel for fires started by careless humans, lightning or downed power lines.
“Our forests here in Colorado are 150% over maximum capacity,” said Craig Robinson, a volunteer lead for Team Rubicon. “We can’t solve the fire risk from I-25 to the Western Slope. It’s going to take a combined community, governmental, NGO effort just to mitigate around homes.”
And mitigating around homes isn’t enough. “It’s really a combination” of forestry work and home-hardening projects that will prevent disastrous fires,” MacHamer said.
Government “agencies are still in the process of figuring out how to help homeowners with the very important task of working on their structures,” she said, emphasizing that support for homeowners in mitigation has been “really neglected.”
“So [nonprofits] are tasked with how to figure out how to do that.”
MacHamer did speculate the new fire mitigation tax, passed last November as county ballot issue 1A, could provide funding to implement this combination.
“It’s just so freaking expensive,” MacHamer said. “When you think about an old mountain house that needs a new roof and new siding, rock placed all around the house and double-pane windows, it’s like a whole new house.”
Team Rubicon: ‘We can only do so much’
One government resource available to Boulder County residents is the Wildfire Partners Program, a Boulder County program that provides Boulderites an assessment of the wildfire risks to their homes. Some homes in the Coal Creek project were in Boulder County and were able to access this resource. Yet others nearby, with almost identical fire risk, were not. Team Rubicon provided ignition assessments for eight homes in Jefferson County.
And still, even on the properties that were able to have Wildfire Partners mark trees that should be taken down, Team Rubicon couldn’t complete all the work.
Wildfire Partners marked trees out to 100 feet from the Boulder County homes, but Robinson said Team Rubicon didn’t have the resources to protect so much of each property. They cut the marked trees to roughly 30 feet from each home to at least partially protect many properties, rather than spend excess time on a select few.
“It is very frustrating to the homeowner, to the community and to us,” Robinson said about the amount of time and energy it takes to mitigate each property. “We can only do so much.”
Team Rubicon, Robinson said, tries to prioritize communities “where the need is greatest” both in terms of fire risk, but also socioeconomically. This can sometimes be difficult, due to what Robinson referred to as the “land rich, cash poor” phenomenon seen in Colorado’s mountain communities.
“Sometimes you drive up to a project and think, ‘I know that house would retail for $800,000, so why are we working for free to protect a house that, on a national scale, is twice the median home price?’” he said. “It’s because we know that $800,000 home was bought for $100,000 and there’s absolutely no way [the homeowners] have the insurance to replace it.”
This is even more pertinent as insurers are pulling out of Colorado’s mountain communities. Dickson of Saws and Slaws said one of the most common reasons Coal Creek residents called her was because their insurer was threatening to drop them if they didn’t do mitigation.
But there’s hope, at least for Coal Creek, as the community might enjoy a larger Team Rubicon force in the future. Robinson said Team Rubicon hopes to do more “fly-in” projects in the future, where more volunteers fly in from other areas of the country and then remain on site — greatly increasing the amount of work that can be done. But to do so, “we need a place to put them.”
This year’s Coal Creek effort would have been a fly-in if organizers had been able to find a place to lodge the volunteers. At a project in Granby, for instance, Team Rubicon was given a conference room by a local hotel where they put their cots and used the hotel’s gym showers.
As someone who lives in the Front Range, Robinson also hopes his organization will be more utilized not just in the mountains, but in tandem with municipalities to do the “boring” work that could prevent catastrophe — clearing the brush and thickets of vegetation that border towns.
“It’s always fun to watch a tree get cut down,” Robinson said. “But it wasn’t trees that started the Marshall Fire. It was boring stuff like bushes and grass.”
For those interested in helping with mitigation efforts, Robinson explained that Team Rubicon has moved away from only utilizing veterans. It now welcomes anyone “who wants to help a community.”
“It’s a bit crass, but we call them kick-ass civilians,” he said.