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Reflections on 2019 from Vail and Beyond

Written by Paul Cada, Wildland Program Manager for Vail Fire and Emergency Services.  In this role he is responsible for the department and Town’s preparedness and response to wildland fires.  Paul works closely with Town staff, community partners and cooperating agencies to build a more fire adapted community in the popular resort town.  The Town of Vail is committed to reducing it risk to wildfire and providing its citizens with world class services.  The numerous wildfire prevention, mitigation and response programs the town supports all work to build a “Fire Adapted Vail”.  Prior to joining Vail Fire Paul held the position of Assistant District Forester for the Colorado State Forest Service, Granby District where he worked on many projects to measurably reduce wildfire risks to mountain communities in Grand, Summit and Eagle Counties as well as create more healthy and resilient forests.  Paul holds a BS in Natural Resource Management from Colorado State University and is also an International Society of Arboriculture Certified Arborist. Paul also serves as an officer on the board of Fire Adapted Colorado.

The new year always makes me pause and reflect upon the past, while I make plans for the future.  As I look back at 2019, I am thankful for the many experiences and interactions that will no doubt open new pathways for the future.

GETTING THE BURN ON IN FLORIDA

I started the year out with the amazing opportunity to participate in a 20-day hands on training at the National Prescribed Fire Training Center in Tallahassee, FL. During this training I was part of a 5-person module who traveled around the state of Florida assisting local agencies to  implement over 5,000 acres of prescribed burning on private, state and federal lands. Our module consisted of firefighters from Oregon, Ohio, Virginia, Idaho and Colorado and was led by a highly experienced practitioner from California.

Until I arrived in Florida, I was unaware of the extensive use and scale of prescribed fire in the Southeast.  The most astonishing part was that all these areas were within the wildland-urban interface. In some cases we were burning within feet of homes and open roads. The communities where we were burning understood the need for the prescribed fire for fuels reduction, ecological restoration and endangered species protection. Theynot only tolerated the burns but were advocating for more.   Through this hands-on training I was able to advance some of my qualifications and gain valuable experience working with fire in different fuels, topography and communities. What I didn’t expect to gain from this training but is far more valuable is the connections to my module members and the partners that we burned with. In the new year I am planning to use some of the skills honed in Florida to implement some prescribed fire within our WUI in Vail. 

ROLL OUT OF CURBSIDE HAZARD ASSESSMENT PROGRAM AND PORTAL

As a firefighter and manager of other firefighters the very slow 2019 fire season allowed me to reconnect with a number of projects and programs that get sidelined during busy fire seasons.  One of these projects is our Curbside Wildfire Hazard Assessment portal. The idea for this portal was borrowed from the West Region Wildfire Council’s My Wildfire Risk program.  The intention of the portal is to allow every property owner to have easy access to specific information about their property’s risk from wildfire.  The project was kicked off in 2017 with some direct support from West Region Wildfire Council, the WiRē Team and the Town of Vail GIS and IT staff.  While we started collecting data in 2017, the 2018 fire season prevented us from launching the public portal until early summer of 2019. Since opening the public portal, we have received extremely positive feedback from the community about our assessment program. You can view the public portal at www.vailwildfire.com.  Just as West Region Wildfire Council and the WiRe team were open to sharing their resources with us, Vail is committed to sharing our methods with the wider FAC community.

Paul Cada (above right) shared home assessment tools and techniques with other FACO members including Schelly Olsen (above left) at a 2017 Assessing Risk in the WUI Learning Exchange put on by Fire Adapted Colorado.

VAIL CWPP LIGHT-BULB MOMENT AT BUILDING FOR WILDFIRE SUMMIT IN BIG SKY MONTANA

If these two opportunities were not enough for me in 2019, then the next was certainly the icing on the cake.  In September I had the opportunity to travel to Big Sky Montana to present at the first Southwest Montana Building for Wildfire Summit.  The intention of the summit was to educate builders, developers and the fire community from the area about best building practices for wildfire. The summit was organized by the Big Sky Fire Department with the support of Headwaters Economics. 

Dr. Jack Cohen, retired USFS researcher, presented on preventing Wildland Urban Disasters and Daniel Gorham P.E., of the Institute for Business and Home Safety, presented on building a safer home. As I sat in the audience listening to the presentations and preparing for my own on FAC activities in Vail, I had an “aha” moment on how we can frame the goal statements for Vail’s first Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP).  While the Vail CWPP is not the first I have written or for which I have been part of the planning team, it is a plan that I have invested a great deal of time and effort in. Getting to meet Dr. Cohen, listen to his research and experience gave me the opportunity to reflect on my own experiences and learning opportunities.  Dr. Cohen convincingly made the argument that you do not need to necessarily control extreme fire behavior to prevent Wildland Urban Disasters from occurring. Tragedies such as the Camp Fire, Waldo Canyon, Black Forest, Thomas and the many other recent fires are a problem of home ignition and not extreme fire behavior. This is a gripping message to convey in our mountain-town CWPP.

LOOKING FORWARD 

As I look back on the year, I can’t help but be optimistic for the future.  In all my travels over the past year I have met more of the brightest, most dedicated, friendly and caring individuals.  As we all work toward local wildfire resilience, I am excited to see what the many different networks of practitioners at the local, statewide and national levels will share. Whether success or failure, tragedy or triumph, I can vouch that the experiences we share are vital to moving our work forward. Just as I bring ideas back to Vail from Florida, Montrose, and Big Sky, I will share my experiences in Vail to the extent they may help other FAC Leaders rise to the meet the many challenges of the wicked WUI wildfire problem.                       

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