For Paulette Church, the ominous approach of the 416 Fire toward her home just north of Durango was, in many ways, the moment she has been preparing for.
For years, Church and her neighbors in the Falls Creek Ranch neighborhood have continually been recognized as one of the most proactive communities in terms of preparing for wildfire.
Those efforts paid off this year as the 416 Fire scorched more than 34,000 acres and recently arrived on the doorstep of the Falls Creek Ranch subdivision.
A mandatory evacuation order was lifted Tuesday for the neighborhood.
“We know we are in the wildland-urban interface,” Church said. “It’s not if a fire is coming, it’s when a fire is coming.”
Hutson Vann, a spokesman for the 416 Fire, said Monday the fire mitigation work Falls Creek Ranch residents have done over the years was noticed, and greatly appreciated, by firefighters working to protect homes.
Because mitigation work like clearing brush and cutting dead trees was already completed, firefighters could focus on getting hoses and sprinklers in place to fight back the eventual arrival of flames.
“The more that homes are already prepped, the more time firefighters can work on defending other homes at risk,” Vann said. “It’s always better to be preventive rather than reactive.”
The dedicated fire mitigation work at Falls Creek Ranch started in 2002 after an electric fence charger sparked a grass fire in the neighborhood. The Valley Fire ended up burning 439 acres and destroying 10 homes.
In 2009, the neighborhood became involved with FireWise of Southwest Colorado, a nonprofit that guides communities in drafting a wildfire protection plan with the input of agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and fire department.
“That’s in the foundation for all our work since then,” Church said.
Falls Creek Ranch is a community of about 100 homes on 940 acres, surrounded by the San Juan National Forest. Homes are located on 1-acre parcels, with the remaining 840 acres serving as a shared open space for residents.
The neighborhood devotes three days a year to fire-mitigation work, such as thinning, trimming or clearing brush and taking out dead trees – the primary fuels that feed a wildfire.
And after a long day’s work, it all culminates in a community potluck.
In May, the neighborhood put on a mock evacuation drill that featured a helicopter demonstration showing a water lift and drop. About 40 residents showed up.
“We’ve really created a culture over time with all the education we’ve done,” Church said.
By Mary Ann Bryant’s account, about 85 percent of Falls Creek Ranch residents participate in some form of fire mitigation, resulting in an estimated 3,500 hours of volunteer work a year.
“We work hard to do what we’ve done,” said Bryant, a Falls Creek resident.
Falls Creek Ranch also takes advantage of several grant opportunities, using the money to purchase equipment to help with fire mitigation, such as an “air curtain burner,” which allows for safe burning of slash piles.
“No matter how much work you do, once the fire comes in, it’s still very frightening and stressful,” Bryant said. “You just have to hope all the work we’ve done has paid off. I think it has, and that’s very comforting.”
Chris Heine, who has lived in Falls Creek Ranch for about six years, said it takes a complete buy-in from the community to be successful in fire mitigation. If one neighbor fails to prepare a house, it puts the whole neighborhood at risk.
Luckily, Falls Creek Ranch has had a handful of residents steadfast and resolute to fire mitigation, Heine said.
“It takes a lot of commitment, but had we not done this, the firefighters could have gone in and not had time to get this place ready,” he said. “There’s no doubt in my mind without our mitigation effort we would have lost structures.”