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Government funds help form a 'community quilt' for Black Forest mitigation

December 16, 2014 Updated: December 16, 2014 at 11:11 am
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Burned and cut trees are pictured off Black Forest Road on Monday, December 15, 2014. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette

For the first time since it was settled more than a century ago, community fire prevention projects are starting in Black Forest, with the help of state and federal fire mitigation grants.

Cutting down trees and cleaning up dead pine needles are nothing new to many residents of Black Forest, but after the 2013 Black Forest fire ravaged the El Paso County neighborhood, homeowners began joining together to create fire mitigation plans that stretch for acres. Black Forest Together, the nonprofit shepherding wildfire recovery in the area, received two state grants in the fall that will help neighbors pay for 125 acres of projects as long as groups of at least five adjacent neighbors join the effort.

But while Black Forest Together can marshal state and federal grants to help with fire prevention, no government funds are available to help with the neighborhood's other big problem - acres and acres of burned trees, said Scott MacDonald, the nonprofit's forest recovery manager.

Government coffers supplied money to cut down trees considered to be a public hazard - those near homes or along roadways - but private money is needed to pay to clear the forest's many charred acres.

The more pressing issue for MacDonald are the countless living trees across the forest that could still carry crown fire - the unstoppable blaze that scorches trees from top to bottom - through Black Forest. Grants from the state's Department of Natural Resources will give Black Forest residents $136,480 to help with group mitigation projects, plus $12,500 to buy a chipper and a trailer to haul slash. The first grant requires a 100 percent match, which means Black Forest Together must come up with enough cash or projects to fill the same amount, MacDonald said.

While 125 acres is but a sliver of the 70,000-acre Black Forest region, it's a move in the right direction for an area that is still fire-prone and has much work to do, MacDonald said.

He wants to change Black Forest's "scattered pattern" of private mitigation projects into something he calls a "community quilt," where projects cover swaths of the neighborhood.

"You develop that community-type quilt and you get the properties linked together in larger scale," he said Monday. "And now we have a better effect on wildfire, driving it to the surface, and keeping it out of the crowns."

Unlike the Waldo Canyon fire, which burned more than 18,000 acres on U.S. Forest Service land, the Black Forest fire destroyed more than 14,000 acres of mostly private property, meaning that some cleanup and mitigation efforts can't depend on government money. Because of the patchwork of private property in Black Forest, there is no neighborhoodwide plan to tackle the thousands of dead trees. But MacDonald hopes there can be some community consensus when it comes to what he calls "green," or live, trees.

The state grants are the largest of any that Black Forest Together has received since the fire, and the only government grants that have put money into the nonprofit's coffers.

As the mission of Black Forest Together takes shape, it's clear that the fire has had an impact on a community that, until now, hasn't tackled the problem of wildfire on a mass scale.

Groups of neighbors have started to form Firewise Communities, a national designation that certifies a community through wildfire mitigation. Local interest in the Black Forest Fire Department and its board - the only noncounty elected officials in the unincorporated area - skyrocketed this summer. In May 2013, just a month before the fire, only 93 people voted in the fire department board elections; a year later, nearly 2,300 people showed up to vote, according to a fire department employee.

Yet as the community starts to unite over lowering fire risk and taking down trees, MacDonald knows the challenge comes with getting each property owner to agree on the neighborhood's plan.

"The devil is going to be in the details, working with property owners," he said of efforts to jump-start mitigation work. "Because they have the final veto for what happens on their land."

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