Cindy Williams presents

Central Colorado Conservancy board President Cindy Williams presents initiatives the Forest Health Council will consider for wildfire prevention Wednesday at the U.S. Forest Service office.

Envision Chaffee County representatives discussed their wildfire prevention goals and initiatives for 2020 with numerous other local organizations at a Forest Health Council meeting Wednesday at the U.S. Forest Service office.

Envision Chaffee County is led by Chaffee County Commissioner Greg Felt and Cindy Williams, Central Colorado Conservancy board president. The goals of the session were to approve the Next Generation Community Wildfire Protection Plan, establish the council goals for 2020 and begin work to implement the Community Wildfire Protection Plan.

Meeting attendees included representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Colorado State Forest Service, Chaffee County Fire Protection District, Salida Fire Department, Buena Vista Fire Department, Chaffee County commissioners, Chaffee County Office of Emergency Management, Central Colorado Conservancy and Colorado Springs Utilities.

The group decided to plan on USFS wildfire mitigation covering 2,000 acres annually and BLM covering 1,000 acres annually for a total of 3,000 acres. The council is aiming for a grand total of 10,000 to 15,000 acres by 2025 with a disclaimer that the results would be subject to weather and financial conditions.

Williams said the greatest uphill battle the council faces when it comes to implementing plans is funding. With the goal of covering 2,000 to 3,000 acres annually, and with the estimated cost of $1,500 an acre, the rough total is said to be $3 million a year.

Chaffee County taxpayers passed the Common Ground ballot measure in 2018, which provides $250,000 to $500,000 a year. The council will need to find additional funding through grants and other sources.

Williams said she thought the meeting was productive, and she was impressed by who was in attendance.

“It’s amazing who’s in the room,” she said. “The mix of agencies and organizations that we have here is really special. I don’t know that anybody else in the state is getting this kind of group of people together to do this work.”

Williams said the various organizations must come together to tackle wildfires because the issue is simply too big for any one organization to solve.

“Fire doesn’t care about land boundaries,” she said. “It goes from Forest Service land to private land as we saw with the Decker Fire. All of these different organizations have a part to play. The more we can do it together, the more we can make this community a safer place, and that comes all the way down to the citizens and individuals.”

The Next Generation Community Wildfire Protection Plan Community Summary will be available Jan. 15 and will give the public a general overview of the plan. The summary will be available at envisionchaffeecounty.org or from leaders of organizations involved in the meeting.

The presentation featured a chart that showed that the destructiveness of a wildfire is based on likelihood, fire behavior and exposure to resources. Methods of wildfire prevention include thinning trees, prescribing controlled burns, cleaning up wood debris and mastication. Thinning is not possible in wilderness or roadless areas and steeper terrain is more expensive to treat.

Community members were surveyed about what they would prioritize in the case of a severe fire and postfire flooding. The assets listed in order were firefighter lives, human life, drinking water, infrastructure, homes, wildlife, Arkansas River recreation, scenic views and trail systems.

Williams said statewide models do not accurately represent Chaffee County. The council instead used a “Bang for the Buck” map of the county, which aimed to identify the locations where treatment can do the most to lower the risk of wildfires for the least amount of money.

The map revealed that treating 5 to 10 percent of the total landscape reduces the risk of severe wildfires by up to 70 percent. The Community Wildfire Protection Plan states the estimated cost is $50-$100 million. Once funds begin to pass that range, the effectiveness of risk reduction begins to plateau.

The council members split into groups several times to have more intimate discussions. The first mini discussion had members prioritize action areas in Chaffee County. The next discussion had the organizations meet with each other to discuss specific actions their group could take in each area both for preparation and implementation of projects in the near future. The third discussion dealt with public information and communication.

Kim Marquis, Envision Chaffee County project and outreach coordinator, encouraged the council to use both traditional and social media to spread the word about their cause.

In 2019, Chaffee County submitted a proposal to the Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative. The county came in second place, but representatives were satisfied because they thought the competition was tough. Williams said that something special was happening in Chaffee County and that statewide partners were taking inspiration in their own respective plans.

The next meeting will take place March 20, when the council will discuss a program action plan review, progress updates and possible Common Ground requests.

The meeting after that will take place June 17, when the council will plan for community days, program updates and funding plans.

Another meeting will take place Oct. 7, when the council will review completed work and plan for a November community meeting.

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