Putting the People in Wildfire Preparedness This Giving Tuesday

Fire Adapted Colorado is committed to helping Coloradans find their roles in living in harmony with wildland fires. We do this by supporting and growing local wildfire preparedness leaders throughout the state. This Giving Tuesday, in addition to your ongoing commitment to wildfire resilience, we invite you to support the FACO Opportunity Fund.

The local wildfire preparedness leaders who volunteer on our board are seeking to raise at least $10,000 to offer our successful Opportunity Fund to our members again in 2020. Our Opportunity Fund is a mini-grant program that fosters local solutions that are difficult to fund through traditional funding sources. It has been amazing to witness what local groups have achieved in 2018 and 2019 with member awards of less than $2,500 and a little mentoring.

The ongoing networking, information and resource sharing, and collective voice and work that FACO provides with our members create ripples of preparedness throughout the state. To inspire you to consider what you might do to aid in your community’s wildfire readiness, we asked a volunteer with a wildfire preparedness partner in El Paso County, home to the two most destructive wildfires in Colorado history to date, to share her story. Lisa is among thousands of Coloradans who volunteer their time and make their own effort to prepared for wildfires. FACO works hard to make sure that there are professional resources and programs available to support them in their efforts.

Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church Emergency Preparedness Group Hit the Ground Running; Now They Spread Their Wings

by Lisa Hatfield, volunteer with non-traditional partners

I hadn’t realized until recently that I had a story to share. But energy for wildfire preparedness efforts like those I’ve been involved in comes from people who cheer for us and teach us. And for the first time, with their encouragement, we have looked back to the beginning of the Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church Emergency Preparedness Group (TLUMC EPG) and all of the amazing individuals who have shared their knowledge and skills with us since 2012.

Colorado State Forester Dave Root has summarized that, “Separately no one person is in charge, but together we can do a lot. It takes really ‘knowing’ each other and sharing information.”  (Dave is a FACO partner member and a regular recipient of FACO news and resources.)

The ripple effects created through my knowledge and connections are how I got connected with Fire Adapted Colorado (FACO) in 2019, which gave me a burst of energy to document our story …

An Emergency Preparedness Group was Born

The June 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire burned the Front Range and exploded 344 homes on the mountains in full view to all and claimed two lives of residents.

Homes in this Colorado Springs neighborhood became fuel for the Waldo Canyon Fire, spreading fire from home to home. Notice the many green trees indicating that this fire had transitioned to an urban conflagration after an initial structure ignition. This photo is from the Denver Post, retrieved electronically December 2, 2019.

A couple of months after the Waldo Canyon Fire, I attended “Are You Ready for the Unthinkable? What To Do When Disaster Strikes,” presented by Kathy Russell, the Emergency Preparedness Planner with the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office at the Monument Branch Library. This presentation highlighted emergency preparedness needs: being “on our own” after a disaster, watching out for vulnerable folks, and the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT).  Only a handful of people attended and another one of them was Larry Adkins. We didn’t really know each other at the time, but we both attended Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church (TLUMC). “Let’s ask for a CERT class at our church,” we decided.

Ellen Lacey at El Paso County provided a CERT class in November. Almost all 30 people at the class attended TLUMC but didn’t know each other well. But what a team-building exercise!  We got fired-up, wanted to form a new group, and asked the county what to do next. At that time they didn’t have a program for us to plug into. So we decided to help people be prepared for future disasters including wildfires by forming a new group. Andre’ Mouton spoke up and said he would lead our new Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church Emergency Preparedness Group (TLUMC EPG). 

We committed to, “do the work of Christ by preparing and educating a network of local citizens to help others in our community in times of disaster and with other needs for assistance.”  We planned to do trainings and assist where we could with projects such as reseeding the Waldo Canyon Fire burn scar.

Getting To Work

We had hardly started and the next summer, the Black Forest Fire (2013) ignited a few minutes’ drive away, quickly claiming the lives of two residents evacuating their homes, destroying 509 homes, and becoming the most destructive wildland fire in Colorado history.

Holy Smokes! How could we help those people who had been burned out of their homes? We needed to do more than just offer classes.

Andre’ met Byron Spinney of the Hope Restored Disaster Ministry during a Black Forest Fire clean-up day. Byron trained us in how to work with traumatized property owners, emotionally, spiritually, and physically… specifically by teaching us how to cut down and limb up burned trees and chip the slash. No one’s homeowner’s insurance covered that kind of work.

TLUMC EPG volunteers prepare Black Forest Fire tree skeletons for chipping. Photo courtesy of TLUMC EPG facebook page

On properties impacted by the Black Forest Fire, we cut trees, stacked wood piles and chipped the remaining scraggly charred branches. TLUMC EPG worked independently and with Hope Restored, Sunrise Church’s Colorado Rebuilds, and Black Forest Together, a grassroots non-profit established by local residents to assist victims of the Black Forest Fire to help survivors connect with the resources they needed to recover their livelihoods, rebuild their homes, and restore their futures.

We wanted to get the word out to more people about how to reduce the risk of this kind of wildfire damage in the future, so we started hosting wildland fire information events at TLUMC, inviting knowledgeable professionals to speak to the whole community. That is how I met Dave Root with the Colorado State Forest Service and Tri-Lakes Monument Fire Protection District Fire Marshals John Vincent and more recently Jamey Bumgarner.

We also combined public awareness efforts with the “Firewise USA” Woodmoor Improvement Association and learned about how to do lot wildfire risk evaluations from volunteer Firewise Committee leader Jim Woodman and Director of Forestry Sherrie Storey and later Matthew Nelson.

We wanted to reduce future wildfire risk and get people to see that they could do a lot of this work themselves if they just learned how and got into the habit. As John Vincent taught us, “mitigation is a lifestyle.”

New Connections, CERT Support, and New Momentum

Meanwhile, El Paso County transformed its CERT program and I met Robin Adair, their Community Emergency Preparedness Coordinator. When she called TLUMC EPG her “flagship CERT team,” I was so proud and realized we have more responsibility than I had thought.

But bit by bit, our core group has shrunk, and we were looking for new ways to get the attention of whole neighborhoods that we can train and mentor and then just help do some initial work days.

Robin sent me to the Fire Adapted Communities Neighborhood Ambassadors workshop in Wyoming as a member of the Pikes Peak Regional CERT team. FACO, recognizing the potential to multiply efforts through building an Ambassador program on the Front Range, covered my plane ticket and arranged for my free lodging with a few others at a Bridger-Teton National Forest bunkhouse.

Matthew Nelson, Woodmoor Improvement Association’s current Director of Forestry also attended. Our instructors were Rebecca Samulski, Director of FACO and Ashley Downing, Director of Wildfire Adapted Partnership and FACO board member. In addition to developing a plan to expand community involvement, I learned that TLUMC EPG is a “non-traditional partner.” I didn’t know that concept; I was just part of a group that was doing what we could. But now we have an even bigger network to plug into to increase our knowledge and impact.

Participants in the Building Your FAC Neighborhood Ambassador Approach workshop in Jackson, Wyoming included Colorado trainers and participants among others from around the country. Photo courtesy of Wendy Fulks with The Nature Conservancy

We also never tooted our own horn until Dave Root passed along some opportunities that Robin Adair in turn encouraged EPG to apply for in 2019.  Robin encouraged us to apply to speak at the Colorado Wildland Fire Conference, which FACO convenes. She also wanted us to apply for the National Wildfire Mitigation Award. This encouragement and reflection on all we have accomplished has given our road-weary leadership new momentum.

In the last five years, TLUMC EPG has organized and worked about 48 tree cutting or chipping days to help more than 60 homeowners get rid of burned trees and also do “green mitigation.” We have helped in Black Forest, Woodmoor, Palmer Lake, Colorado Estates, Cascade, Walden, Wissler Ranch, and southern Douglas County.  We have also assisted with post-wildfire associated flooding cleanup efforts in Berthoud and Longmont.

Our group has also hosted seven major wildfire risk reduction information events featuring local political leaders, fire and forestry professionals, and volunteer group leaders as speakers and panel discussion members. We’ve supported at least 21 other agencies’ events by staffing information tables on defensible space, home hardening, evacuation planning, and emergency preparedness and we continue our own small preparedness reminder events at our church. Evidence of our work includes “before & after” photos of our projects and our dirty, tired, happy property owners and volunteers on the TLUMC EPG facebook page.

One of our firewise events inspired Beth Lonnquist of Red Rock Ranch to find out how to make her neighborhood safer. She got other residents involved, and TLUMC EPG worked in throughout her neighborhood for two seasons on multiple days to help them get started. Now Red Rock Ranch is one of seven National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Firewise USA Sites of Excellence. Read about their journey including volunteer days with the TLUMC EPG here.

Andre’ Mouton and John Rickman presented to the Northern El Paso County Commission of Community Organizations  (NEPCO) this year, and this yielded at least one future Neighborhood Ambassador, Becky Zitterich of Colorado Estates. We’ve worked with her and her neighbors in 2019 and hope to do more in 2020, maybe teaming up with the Tri-Lakes Monument Fire Protection District to help them fully utilize the chipper that they got with a recent state forest service Forest Restoration and Wildfire Risk Mitigation grant. 

Becky Zitterich is getting the action started during a Colorado Estates rolling chipper day with TLUMC EPG volunteer support. Photo from TLUMC Facebook page.

And, inspired by the FACO Neighborhood Ambassadors workshop, we are working on new ideas with the Pikes Peak Office of Emergency Management, Dave Root (CSFS), and Matthew Nelson (Woodmoor Improvement Association, NEPCO, and Pikes Peak Wildfire Prevention Partners). We plan to create a county-wide campaign, focusing at the neighborhood level. The message will be how to reduce excessive low-level vegetation (ladder fuels) and encourage neighborhood residents to support each other in this work.

TLUMC EPG members now have renewed energy thanks in large part to our FACO involvement, which only materialized through this historic network of wonderful individuals all working toward the goal of better wildfire outcomes.

Lisa Hatfield
Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church Emergency Preparedness Group
and Pikes Peak Regional CERT

Lisa Hatfield volunteering during one of many community wildfire preparedness events. Photo courtesy of TLUMC EPG