With about 50% of Coloradans living in areas at risk of wildfire, it’s time for landowners to take measures into their own hands – at least that’s the message forest managers and emergency officials are expressing.
The Colorado State Forest Service this fall released a study that shows from 2012 to 2017, the number of people living in areas at risk to the effects of wildfire increased by nearly 50% – with about 2.9 million people now living in the “wildland-urban interface.”
“With the continued increase in Colorado’s wildland-urban interface population, it’s critical for landowners and communities to take actions to reduce their risk and address forest health concerns,” Mike Lester, state forester and CSFS director, said at the time the study was released.
In La Plata County, about 53,800 people, or 96.9% of the total population, live in this wildland-urban interface.
Recently, a partnership among the CSFS, the American Forest Foundation and the Natural Resource Conservation Service launched a pilot program to help private landowners better protect their forests by connecting them with local foresters – a program the organizations hope can be applied to other at-risk areas around the country.
“Throughout the West, there are a lot of landowners that need to get work done to improve their forests’ health and reduce fire risk,” said Natalie Omundson, western regional manager for American Forest Foundation.
“Unfortunately, often there aren’t enough boots on the ground to help guide those landowners in taking necessary fuels reduction action.”
That’s where the pilot program steps in.
Last summer, the NRCS awarded $2.1 million for projects in two states, Colorado and Oregon, to specifically help property owners reduce the risk of wildfire on their lands. A representative with the NRCS did not return calls seeking comment for this story.
In Colorado, the grant money was passed to the CSFS to hire more foresters to help consult with private property owners in two areas: South Boulder Creek on the Front Range and homes in the Upper Pine River watershed, just east of Durango.
Durango resident Kyle O’Neill was hired by CSFS to lead the My Southwest Forest program to help guide landowners through the forest management process.
Recently, mailers were sent to about 380 landowners with 20-plus acres informing them they qualified for a free consultation from the CSFS. About 10% responded with interest, O’Neill said, with 30 or so site visits planned.
Mark Loveall, supervisory forester for the CSFS Durango field office, wrote in an email to The Durango Herald that the initial outreach effort targeted a pre-identified priority area slightly north of Bayfield. Based on demand arising from the initial outreach effort, he said, subsequent locations will be identified in the future.
“Anybody not included in this outreach program with forestry questions is encouraged to contact the Durango Field Office of the Colorado State Forest Service at (970) 247-5250 or visit our website at https://csfs.colostate.edu,” he wrote.
O’Neill will schedule a time to visit a property and give the landowner ideas about how to improve forest health or reduce wildfire risk by thinning trees, raising the tree canopy and clearing vegetation to create defensible spaces from fire.
“These people have purchased land here and are invested in the property, and I think many want to do the work necessary to improve forest health,” O’Neill said. “It’s a necessary thing we need to do on the landscape.”
Kevin Winkler, who has property north of Bayfield, had a consultation from the CSFS earlier this month. He said he wants to get proactive on his land.
“Our trees are crowding each other out, and we want to get a plan together … to get it to be healthier,” he said. “It’s starting to edge itself out, and eventually it will kill itself off.”
Landowners have options to get funding for actual work, O’Neill said, but not all landowners want or need a comprehensive plan – some just need a limited report or specific advice about an issue.
“And, you don’t have to do everything at once,” he said. “A little bit every year is a good thing.”