SIDE STREETS: City gets $1 million to prevent wildfires

SIDE STREETS: City gets $1 million to prevent wildfires

3 March 2008

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by Bill Vogrin

USA — Colorado Springs is a wildfire disaster waiting to happen, so federal officials are giving the city $1 million to make sure it doesn’t.

Foothills neighborhoods from Peregrine to the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo will share the windfall, which will be used to clear more than 500 acres of potential wildfire fuel.

Residents will see the money in action in a few weeks as crews with chain saws and chippers fan out to start “limbing” trees, removing dead scrub oak and cutting brush.

The crews will be following up on work started by homeowners, whose sweat equity was key to persuading the Federal Emergency Management Agency to award the Springs its third consecutive “pre-disaster mitigation grant.”

“This was the only grant awarded in the nation to address wildland risk,” said Christina Randall, the Colorado Springs Fire Department wildland risk manager.

“Typically, these grants go for flood control, landslide and slope movement, tornado shelters,” she said.

The Springs won again because the Fire Department has been aggressive through its FireWise program, which educates people about wildfire risks through the use of a mobile trailer, educational talks and a risk-rating Web site.

FireWise has persuaded dozens of neighborhood groups to get busy on common areas and individuals to reduce the risk on their own properties.

“FEMA really loves that,” Randall said, noting that the grants require matching funds from the community either in hard dollars or volunteer hours.

“They like to see the community involved — not just waiting for government to come in and fix a problem,” she said. “These projects rely on residents stepping up and doing the work.”

Sandy Lewis is an example of the type of homeowner FEMA likes.

Lewis lives in Cedar Heights, a gated neighborhood of about 200 luxury homes above the Garden of the Gods on the city’s far west edge.

For years, he has coordinated efforts to get his neighbors to create defensible space around their homes in the heavily wooded neighborhood.

Lewis has preached the FireWise gospel of removing brush and dead trees to eliminate fuel. And he cites chapter and verse of the need to trim the lower limbs of trees to prevent the “ladder effect” in which a wildfire climbs a tree and gets into the forest canopy.

“This community has done a tremendous job,” Lewis said of his Cedar Heights neighbors. “Now, it’s paying off with the FEMA grant.”

Lewis said that in 2006, Cedar Heights residents spent more than 1,000 hours clearing their lots and common areas. And they invested about $27,000 on fire mitigation.

Last year, the neighborhood spent nearly $115,000 on more sophisticated measures, such as converting cedar shake roofs to more fire-resistant materials and converting wood siding to stucco.

All those efforts were added up by Randall to reach the needed matching contribution without using tax dollars.

“That’s what is so incredible about this grant,” she said. “We did it all with matching commitments.”

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