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Posted on: September 13, 2022

Working to Reduce Wildfire Risk

Lesley Dalhkember headshot with news image text

Take a drive in Evergreen, Conifer or Pine and you’ll easily see how the majestic views, mountain lifestyle and nearby trails continue to attract many to our area.  Driving along these narrow back roads also make the area’s fire risk quickly evident. Heavily forested areas and steep terrain combined with increasingly dry conditions all contribute to high-fire risk. These factors and others make fast-moving wildfires harder to contain and require us to think in new ways about growth, development, and forest health. 

As population and development grow in the wildland-urban interface, or WUI, our vulnerability to wildfire risk increases across Colorado. Data show America’s WUI continues to increase by about 2 million acres per year. More than two-thirds of Jefferson County is in the WUI and Verisk’s wildfire analysis shows Evergreen and Conifer lead the list statewide in the number of properties at extreme risk.

There is no single, quick solution to extinguish wildfire risk. It requires a comprehensive approach – with all of us doing our part. Commissioners work closely with community members, fire chiefs, the Jeffco Sheriff’s Office, Jeffco Emergency Management, Jeffco Open Space, Jeffco Planning and Zoning, Jeffco Road and Bridge, forest health managers and water experts on multiple fronts. 

Commissioners recently earmarked $2.7 million in American Rescue Plan dollars to protect homes from wildfires in Jefferson County. We’ll leverage those funds with a new state grant totaling $2 million from the Colorado Strategic Wildfire Action Program. Jefferson County is one of only a handful of counties to receive this funding. These dollars and others funds totaling $8.1 million will advance our Jeffco Wildfire Safe program to: 

  • Protect people and structures. Research shows building codes tailored for the WUI can help reduce risk and increase the likelihood residents have a home to return to after a wildfire. We’re exploring the full adoption of the International WUI building codes and expanding how the WUI is defined in Jefferson County, which now only covers elevations at 6,400 feet and above. We’re examining transportation routes for safe, efficient evacuation ranging from increased mitigation along roadsides to gathering community input to help inform safer roadways. We’re further integrating land use, emergency, transportation, and wildfire planning in the WUI, including updates to the Community Wildfire Protection Plan. This effort includes a thorough assessment of planning and zoning codes and what needs to change to further reduce wildfire risk. 
  • Reduce fuel for wildfire. Thinning overgrown forests on both public and private land helps fires burn slower and lower to the ground – the funding will help increase the pace and scale of mitigation. More help is on the way for homeowners, too, to improve defensible space around their homes thanks to assessments led by fire rescue districts. Many residents are already taking advantage of dozens of meetings hosted by fire districts that provide important information on protecting their homes and property.
  • Increase SLASH collection and biomass recycling. We are enhancing the Jeffco SLASH program, which helps residents dispose of forest debris near their homes such as tree branches, pinecones, and needles. We also doubled the number of days for summer slash collection. Residents are responding – after only one month, we have collected more than double the amount of slash than we did at this point last year. The county’s Parks & Conservation Team and the Jefferson Conservation District are leading these efforts. The county is also creating two, year-round locations for residents to drop off and recycle slash. This effort includes enhancing neighborhood chipping programs with the help of local fire districts and biochar processing, a charcoal-like substance left over from burning forestry waste like slash. Biochar shows promise in mitigating climate change and improving soil quality.  

Several of these recommendations came directly from the county’s first ever Wildfire Risk Reduction Task Force. Community leaders and subject matter experts from across the county worked together to identify three priority areas: enhancing the pace and scale of mitigation, increasing community education, and securing new revenue sources to reduce wildfire risk. The task force has now evolved into the Wildfire Commission, which will continue to inform countywide policies and track progress. 

These efforts are in addition to policies approved earlier this year that require anyone requesting a building permit in the WUI for new homes or home expansions to show proof of defensible space and use ignition-resistant materials. To help meet the need, Jeffco has hired a fire mitigation specialist to work with property owners to address defensible space. County staff also worked on a memorandum of understanding to partner with Evergreen Fire Rescue for mitigation of fire risks within county right-of-way.

Plus, commissioners were recently briefed on access standards for driveways, private roads and unimproved roads in public right-of-way that will accommodate fire trucks, safe ingress, and egress but that do not require fire district review. Requirements in the WUI include 10-foot defensible space on both sides of the driveway on the property. The standards will be brought forward for formal approval at the Board of County Commissioners’ October 4 public hearing.

Being prepared for an emergency is critical for every resident. During a wildfire, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office works with your local fire departments to safely get people out of harm’s way. But don’t wait for someone to come save you. Visit the Be Your Own Hero web page to learn more about this program from the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office on protecting your life and property. Jeffco residents also should register for LookoutAlert to receive emergency notifications.

We are not only tackling wildfire at a county level but partnering with our state and national leaders. Commissioner Dahlkemper serves as one of two county commissioners representing the interests of counties on the Colorado Fire Commission. In July, the National Association of Counties invited Commissioner Dahlkemper and Jeffco Planning & Zoning Director Chris O’Keefe to present our wildfire risk reduction efforts at its annual national conference.  

Together, we’re seeking collaborative solutions to keep Jeffco safe from wildfire and protect our lands for generations to come. We recognize there’s much more work ahead. As the county faces financial challenges, we’ll continue to proactively pursue federal and state grants and other funding that help keep our community safe.

Lesley

Article has been slightly updated since originally published as an op-ed in the Canyon Courier in July. To learn more about the Jefferson County Wildfire Commission, visit our website.

To learn more about the Jefferson County Commissioners, visit our website. The Board of County Commissioners’ public hearings are held on most Tuesdays at 8:00 a.m. and we invite you to join us for public comment. Click here for details.

 

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