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Black Forest seeks 'spark plugs' to rouse Firewise

February 14, 2014 Updated: February 14, 2014 at 5:31 am
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El Paso County Sheriff's Deputies direct evacuees at the corner of Black Forest Rd. and Shoup Rd. in Black Forest on Tuesday, June 11, 2013. (Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette)

The Black Forest Fire Rescue/Protection District is looking for a few "spark plugs" to help transform the Black Forest area into a group of "Firewise Communities."

Spark plug is the name Firewise gives to people who take the lead in convincing a community to take part in a national program designed to save homes and lives in fire-prone areas.

There are 950 certified Firewise Communities in the United States, meaning residents, firefighters and government officials share a commitment and action plans to minimize fire risk.

Minimizing risk is an important step for the Black Forest, hit by a firestorm that consumed more than 14,000 acres, destroyed 488 homes and killed two people about eight months ago.

"We need to come together as a community where our properties are joined and provide mutual support and mutual protection," said Lt. Scott MacDonald, Black Forest Fire's community programs coordinator. "That's the whole purpose behind Firewise Communities."

A vanguard of about 25 residents attended a kick-off meeting recently at the Black Forest fire station focused on developing a firewise community.

The group watched a hard-hitting, 15-minute video by Pikes Peak Wildfire Prevention Partners that analyzed the Black Forest fire.

See the Black Forest Fire video here.

"Like many areas in the West, 100 years of vigorous fire suppression and little thinning of trees had turned this beloved forest into a powder keg," the video stated.

Mitigation, it stressed, is not a guarantee. But it would have helped lessen the damage.

That mitigation, MacDonald said, needs to be done "on a community basis."

"We need to protect each other," he said. "At least 60 percent or more of the forest is unburned. If we don't get rain, we're one lightning strike from doing this again."

Receiving the certification can make a big difference, said Gary Hoffman, the "spark plug" behind the effort in the High Forest Ranch, which earned the firewise designation in 2013.

Two weeks before the Black Forest fire started, the neighborhood - working toward the certification - finished slash removal. The area escaped serious damage from the fire, he said.

"We were very, very fortunate."

The catalyst for the neighborhood's efforts was the Waldo Canyon fire. That fire in the summer of 2012 destroyed more than 18,000 acres and 347 homes.

It was something Hoffman didn't want to see in the Black Forest.

"How do we protect our investment? That was our rallying cry," he said.

While it wasn't difficult to earn the firewise recognition, there were obstacles.

Click here for more information.

Education and expectations of residents in the area were tough to overcome, he said.

"We were having a difficult time trying to educate people on how to live in the forest and still have it be a safer environment," Hoffman said.

Owners of vacant lots don't want to part with money, and getting individual homeowners to buy in hasn't been easy.

Hoffman said about 35 percent of High Forest Ranch is actively involved in the program, about a third have not made decisions and there's "a handful of folks who by God aren't going to let anybody tell them what to do."

"Change is difficult," he said. "That's why education is so important."

Benefits aren't just protection from wildfire.

Communities during these efforts pull together. They learn about the risks of their wildfire environment and how to fight back.

There's access to experts and information from the program's website, and certified communities can get grant money for wildfire safety or fuel mitigation.

Insurance rates won't necessarily decline, but they won't increase in the event of a fire and there's more of a likelihood that insurance will be more available for Firewise Communities.

In High Forest, the fight to protect homes from wildfire is far from complete.

"You don't mitigate and say; 'I'm done,'" Hoffman said. "It's a journey."

But, he added, "Obviously, if we don't do anything, bad things are going to happen."

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