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Addressing Wildland-Fire Risk in the Built Environment: A Cohesive Strategy

In 2000, the Colorado Springs Fire Chief Manuel Navarro challenged staff to "never let the public tell me that they didn't know we lived with a wildfire risk."

Since then, Colorado Springs has taken an interactive approach to addressing wildland-fire risk that goes beyond buying a chipper.

The city of Colorado Springs recently experienced the Waldo Canyon Fire, which was the most devastating fire in the city's history. It resulted in two fatalities and 346 homes destroyed.

Even with so much loss, this event wasn't a surprise to the Colorado Springs Fire Department (CSFD) or the city; many people knew it was just a matter of time. Time finally ran out this summer, and even though it was extreme behavior, there was an 82% save rate as a result of firefighter intervention and mitigation measures.

Colorado Springs Wildfire Mitigation had been working with residents since 2000 on a cohesive strategy made up of several program features, including wildland-fire risk assessment, education and outreach, fuel mitigation, grant administration, contract administration, volunteer program coordination and development review.

Since the initial risk assessment was completed in 2000, Colorado Springs has reviewed the wildland-fire risk for all 36,485 addresses identified in the wildland-urban interface. This risk model looks at 25 weighted values, including everything from roof material to vegetation density. Data was derived through site visits and GIS.

As part of the education and outreach efforts, this risk assessment was made accessible on the CSFD website. It's used to define relative risk and to engage homeowners, but not to be used as an operational model.

In addition, CSFD Wildfire Mitigation offers neighborhood meetings and on-site consultations free of charge to residents, providing guidelines on how to address the surrounding vegetation and structural characteristics.

With the tagline "Sharing the Responsibility," the program reminds residents that the fire department can't address wildland-fire risk alone. Colorado Springs has identified 28,800 acres of wildland-urban interface in the city. With two funded positions, 10 grant-funded positions and an operating budget of $400,000 (25% out of public-safety sales tax and 75% out of grants), we're only successful by working together.

Fuel mitigation is a large part of the program, as it allows for the widest impact to be made on the most residences. Treatments in common areas, open spaces and private lots include hand thinning, pruning, chipping, mastication, mowing (brush) and prescribed fire (city watershed). In 2011, CSFD Wildfire Mitigation treated over 1,400 acres.

Colorado Springs Fire Department isn't a land management agency, so all of the work is done in stewardship with property owners. To date, CSFD Wildfire Mitigation works in stewardship with 74 neighborhoods and homeowner associations.

Grant administration involves working with neighborhood champions on tracking matching contributions for the grants, grant reporting and environmental closeout. Contract administration includes site administration as well as compliance with environmental guidelines. CSFD also coordinates volunteer fuel-mitigation projects with neighborhood groups, TwoCor Youth Corp, Palmer Land Trust and Boy Scouts of America to build social capital and bring the community together, strengthening efforts.

On the front end of new construction and for existing construction, CFSD works with the city's development review to address surrounding vegetation as it relates to structures in addition to calling out fire-resistant building characteristics. This service is provided to the owners and developers free of charge and defensible space is addressed before the certificate of occupancy.

In 2003, Colorado Springs passed a citywide class-A roofing ordinance; since then 55,209 wood roofs have been changed to class-A materials.

These program features form an ongoing commitment between Colorado Springs Fire Department and city residents. Sharing in the responsibility brings commitment and resources to the local level. There's no amount of acceptable loss, but when you see successes and structure survival as a result of work done by residents, it's clear someone got the message—a message that must continue to be delivered.

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