Wildfire mitigation projects in Colorado Springs got a hefty helping hand from the federal government this week, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency granted the Colorado Springs Fire Department $1 million.

The Pre-Disaster Mitigation grant will pay for wildfire mitigation projects on 500 acres in Ute Valley Park and an open space next to the Broadmoor Bluffs neighborhood.

"We're very fortunate that funding has become available to assist our community in addressing wildfire risk and very grateful for the opportunity FEMA provides to us to compete for funding," said city Fire Marshal Brett Lacey. "These projects will do a lot to reduce fire behavior in a wildfire event."

FEMA will pay 75 percent of the project costs. The remaining costs will be covered by the public safety sales tax and neighborhood volunteer  labor and projects.

The grant is the largest wildfire mitigation funding awarded to the department. Over several years, Pre-Disaster Mitigation grants have provided the Fire Department with more than $2.3 million.

But the grant is far short of what is needed to treat at-risk neighborhoods and city land.

"One million dollars is quite a bit, and 500 acres is quite a lot," said Jeremy Taylor, of the department's Wildfire Mitigation team. "But there are 32,000 acres of land in the wildland urban interface, so this is just one piece of the puzzle to reduce risk to the community."

Those 32,000 acres, and much of the U.S. Forest Service land near it, were subject to more than 100 years of fire suppression, intensifying the amount of work for fire crews.

"As fire no longer naturally thins out the forest, we have to do it mechanically," said Taylor. "Our goal is to bring the forests back to historic stock conditions, or trees per acre."

The cost of not reaching that goal before the next fire is high. Since the start of 2012, more than 15,300 houses and commercial buildings have been built in El Paso County's wildland urban interface, say data from the county Assessor's Office and the Colorado State Forest Service.

Some of those homes are part of the 113 homeowner associations and neighborhoods that the Fire Department works with on at-home fire mitigation, where fire crews consult with homeowners for free on what they can do to protect their homes and the community from fires.

Community members from the Ute Valley and Broadmoor Bluffs areas, many of whom have participated in the on-site consultation program, were the ones who pushed for the FEMA grant to be applied to these areas, Taylor said.

"We picked those two areas because of the concern within the community. People are saying that they have done their work, so what about the work that needs to be done on the other side (of their property)?"

With the money, a licensed contractor will target dead and overgrown vegetation at Ute Valley and on the land near Broadmoor Bluffs, uprooting and clearing bushes and trees that could fuel a fire. Crews will send what they collect through a wood chipper and redistribute the chips through the spaces to regenerate soils and help prevent erosion.

As Taylor and his team work, many wonder when the next Waldo Canyon or Black Forest fire will strike in Colorado Springs, especially if the warm, dry weather continues. The Waldo Canyon fire in 2012 burned more than 18,000 acres and destroyed almost 350 buildings. A year later, the Black Forest fire burned more than 14,000 acres and destroyed more than 500 homes.

"We need to understand that where we live does have that risk, and the risk is not a matter of if, but when," Taylor said. "We monitor closely predictive services and the daily, monthly and yearly weather. We try to be on our toes ... and we want to make sure our community will be prepared for that event, but we don't know when it will happen or the severity."

Twitter: @lizmforster

Phone: 636-0193

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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