Last year’s wildfire season was a wake-up call, said Hal Doughty, chief of the Durango Fire Protection District.
The 416 Fire in La Plata County burned 54,000 acres of public lands. While the blaze in Southwest Colorado didn’t consume homes or people – the Camp Fire in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California torched the town of Paradise, killing 86 and causing $16.5 billion in damage, according to recent reports.
While wildfires can be devastating, they’re also natural and can contribute to the ecological health of dense forests. Firefighters this year in Southwest Colorado have been fueling lightning-caused wildfires to allow them to burn dead plant material and make more space for new plants and animals to thrive. Controlled burns also reduce fuels and act as a firebreak for future wildfires.
The proverbial front line in the effort to protect developed areas from wildfire has been identified by experts as the wildland-urban interface, or WUI (pronounced WOOH-ee). The city of Durango has about 46 miles of WUI, where city-, county-, state- and federally-owned land abuts private property, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department staff told City Council on Tuesday.
“Mitigation happens at all levels – local, state, tribal and federal. A combined approach helps achieve fire-adapted communities,” according to a National Wildfire Coordinating Group WUI reference guide. “Individuals, communities and organizations working together to share and leverage resources and build partnerships are the keys to success.”
Durango’s Wildfire Adaptive Partnership, a rebranded nonprofit once called FireWise of Southwest Colorado, has partnered with the Durango Parks and Recreation Department to identify and mitigate wildfire danger in Durango’s WUIs.
The two entities have enlisted the help of the Durango Fire Protection District, the Colorado State Forest Service, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the State of Colorado Department of Fire Prevention and Control, La Plata Electric Association, the San Juan National Forest, La Plata County and neighborhood residents.
The partnership identified more than 8,000 feet of WUI in two “priority areas” around Durango – a 6,400-foot swath of land between SkyRidge subdivision and Horse Gulch open space to the east and 2,200 feet of land between Overend Mountain Park and the Crestview neighborhood to the west.
Each foot of mitigated space length is planned to stretch 60-feet wide. The mitigation plan calls for creating distance between tree crowns, removing dead trees, trimming limbs of living trees, mowing dense dry grass and separating clumps of shrubs to disrupt wildfire intensity and continuity before it comes into contact with developed, human-occupied space.
The first phase of the years-long process to mitigate wildfire fuels in the Durango WUI is expected to cost in the range of $100,000 to $150,000, Parks and Recreation Director Cathy Metz told City Council on Tuesday. DFPD plans to use a specialized tool for mitigating wildfire fuels called an air curtain burner. The equipment recycles smoke into its 2,000 degree Fahrenheit furnace, burning unconsumed plant material in the exhaust.
“It (the air curtain burner) burns extremely cleanly – it blows the smoke back over on itself sort of like reburning in a furnace,” Chief Doughty told City Council on Tuesday. “It allows us to burn much more safely and environmentally friendly.”
The partnership hopes to enlist the help of residents along the WUIs and plans to send letters to residences along the more than 8,000 feet of Phase 1 mitigation to notify people of a Sept. 18 public meeting seeking public input about the proposal.
Some residents are concerned about privacy – removing vegetation could allow people to look onto once veiled private property – and others worry about a loss of habitat for wildlife, Metz said. But mitigating wildfire fuel may boost the ecological diversity of WUIs, providing more space for new plants and animals to occupy, she said.
Whatever the means, wildfire fuel mitigation efforts must not be ephemeral, City Councilor Kim Baxter said: “When you do it, it’s not done. It’s an ongoing process.”
Doughty said a calculated engagement with the public is crucial to instilling the cultural change required by an increasing threat of intense wildfires.
“The whole issues is: It’s not a one-time deal, it’s a lifestyle,” he said. “We’ve had poignant reminders.”