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Scott Komatz of Seed Masters works on a fire mitigation project at Stratton Open Space in this 2017 Gazette file photo. County fire departments are pulling out all the stops for mitigation work they hope can reduce the hazards posed by a potentially extreme summer of wildfires.

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As southern El Paso County recovers from two major fires, county fire departments are pulling out all the stops for mitigation work they hope can reduce the hazards posed by a potentially extreme summer of wildfires.

But firefighters can't do it alone and are urging the public - especially those in the southwest part of the city - to start on mitigation on their property before it's too late.

"We push the understanding that fire has no boundaries," said Jeremy Taylor, the program administrator for the Colorado Springs Fire Department's Wildfire Mitigation section, "and 'sharing the responsibility' is ultimately our message because that fire doesn't know the property boundaries."

The red zone

The wildland urban interface, known as the WUI, under the jurisdiction of the Fire Department stretches across 28,800 acres and is home to 36,485 residences on the city's west side.

Though no part of the WUI is exempt from risk, Taylor said, the southwest part of the city is of chief concern and where much of the $500,000 given to the department by the El Pomar and Anschutz foundations for fire mitigation will go toward.

The Fire Department's wildfire mitigation team has an interactive "Wildfire Risk Assessment" map that shows a broad view of the "red zones" in the city as well as a property-by-property rating of wildfire risk, from low risk (dark green) to extreme risk (red). It's purely a public education tool and does not dictate firefighters' operational choices.

The concern for the southwest primarily stems from the terrain, topography and vegetation of the area, Taylor said. The southwest has steep slopes and bluffs, which help move a fire quicker and more intensely, as well as old growth, large diameter vegetation that fuel large crown fires.

Over 100 years of fire suppression hasn't helped, either.

Since 2007, Ashley Whitworth, the Wildfire Mitigation program coordinator, has worked to assess the risk of every home in the WUI. Her risk calculation is based on 25 weighted values, including the slope angle and topography of the property and the mitigation work done on vegetation. The type of roofing on a house is the heaviest weighted value for properties, since it has the greatest surface area.

Of those 25 values, homeowners can only influence five, said Whitworth: roofing material, siding material, the type of vegetation in the yard, the amount and quality of mitigation work and whether the address on the house can be seen from the street.

Beyond those five factors - and choosing to live in a less fire-prone area - Mother Nature decides where the blaze will burn.

Mitigation consultations

Homeowners can search for their specific address on the map, which the Fire Department hopes will lead those concerned about their fire risk to call them for a free on-site consultation.

During a consultation, Whitworth and her team go through the wildfire risk criteria and identify changes the homeowner can make, especially low-lying growth that can carry embers and flames into the canopy and large trees that are known as ladder fuels. The most important element of fire-safe landscaping is the vegetation within 30 feet of the house. Mitigation work done properly in that radius "is what saves lives," Taylor said.

The nationally recognized program is open to any homeowner in Colorado Springs, and participation increases every year.

Before the Waldo Canyon Fire in 2012, 66 homeowners associations had partnerships with the Colorado Springs Fire Department for wildfire mitigation programs. Six years later, that number has nearly doubled to 113.

The success is a reflection of how much the consultations "open people's eyes," Whitworth said.

"Sometimes a homeowner is concerned about one thing, but we come in and redirect their attention to something entirely different that we see as a hazard," she said.

Whitworth commonly encounters residents with juniper bushes around their property, for example. Juniper bushes, she said, have a high resin content, die from the root out, require little water and collect small bits of blown debris. All these factors make the bush highly flammable and a serious hazard when planted against a home.

Whitworth emphasized that consultations aren't meant to tell residents to clear-cut their land but rather modify their property to achieve "an acceptable level of risk."

"If a resident wants to keep a tree, we'll tell them how they can best work around it," she said. "We're not here to make people do anything they don't want, just to advise them on what we see."

In addition to consultations, the Fire Department offers neighborhoods a free chipping service once to twice a summer. Residents can drop tree branches and other clipped vegetation on the curb on their designated pickup day, where a team will chip it on-site.

Balancing risk

Dick Standaert, a resident of the Cedar Heights subdivision that overlooks Manitou Springs to Garden of the Gods, is in the thick of the red zone. He knows it, and so do his neighbors.

"All of us are saying that this season looks horrible," he said.

Cedar Heights barely escaped destruction in 2012 during the Waldo Canyon fire. The neighborhood was the first in the city to be threatened, and, on the night of June 23, firefighters battled what Colorado Springs fire Lt. Rick Schmidt described to The Gazette as "a blizzard of embers."

Standaert hopped on the mitigation bandwagon when he walked outside to ash falling on the hood of his car during the Hayman fire in 2002, the same year the Fire Department's mitigation program started.

"There was an increased sense of urgency to do my part in saving my home that I felt then," he said.

Working with the Fire Department, Standaert identified hazardous vegetation, landscaping design and building materials that he could manipulate to safeguard his house. Mobilized by his own efforts, Standaert became a "neighborhood champion" for the Fire Department, advocating for his neighbors to do mitigation and helping them where needed.

His efforts have recruited between 40 percent and 50 percent of the Cedar Heights neighborhood and spurred critical mitigation in the neighborhood's conservation easement, Solitude Park.

In 2008, Standaert, other leaders in Cedar Heights and the Palmer Land Trust realized that the untreated, 300-acre private open space posed a serious fire hazard to homes. Over the following years, crews thinned 100 acres of dead scrub oak and ponderosa pine.

Mitigation experts said the thinning - combined with wind shifts, well-aimed slurry and work to create fire breaks - helped save the park and the neighborhood. Altogether, only 25 acres of the park burned because the "fire simply ran out of fuel," the Palmer Land Trust website says.

"We live here because we want to live in the forest," Standaert said. "There is a balance of risk factors that we accept when we choose to live here, and, as homeowners, I believe it's worth the effort to reduce our risk."

A year-round effort

Standaert's mitigation work is continuous: one season of trimming and chipping won't stop a wildfire the next year after vegetation regrows. And with climate change creating drier, warmer conditions in Colorado and the Southwest, hazardous fuels may build up faster and have a larger window in which to ignite.

"This year especially has highlighted that we are now dealing with fire years, not fire season," Whitworth said. "It's 365 days a year. Anything can happen at anytime."

That reality makes mitigation season 365 days a year, too.

"Mitigation work is not one and done," Whitworth said. "The vegetation grows back and needs to be trimmed every year to keep the risk of fire as manageable as possible."

Liz Forster is a general assignment reporter with a focus on environment and public safety. She is a Colorado College graduate, avid hiker and skier, and sweet potato enthusiast. Liz joined The Gazette in June 2017.

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