At a recent community meeting regarding the Decker Fire, Salida District Ranger Jim Pitts described Chaffee County as “a community that lives with fire.”

While this may not be the way many of us would describe this valley, the fact that over 80 percent of our landscape is federal land, with the vast majority forested, is reason enough to seriously consider his description.

In addition, nearly half of our county population resides outside of our municipalities, many in the area known as the Wildland-Urban Interface.

Add the impacts to forest health from several devastating insect infestations and uncertainty about future precipitation and temperature patterns, and we, as a community and as individuals, face the choice of pulling the blanket over our head and hoping for the best or embracing the challenge and taking direct action on behalf of ourselves and the forest. From my perspective as Chaffee County commissioner, this choice has already been made.

1,500 of our residents participated on some level in the Envision Chaffee County process. The first vision statement developed was “Our Forests, Waters, and Wildlife are healthy.”

Converting that vision to action, county voters passed ballot measure 1A last November, establishing the Chaffee Common Ground program, which dedicates a significant percentage of funds specifically for Forest Health and Wildfire Mitigation.

Supporting the Common Ground committee in that work is a Forest Health Subject Matter Expert Board and the concurrent development of a “Next Generation” Community Wildfire Protection Plan.

Throughout this unfolding process, we have had tremendous support and participation from the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, Colorado State Forest Service, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, our fire protection districts and the county Office of Emergency Management. 

Chaffee County residents realize that forest health and wildfire mitigation are not solely the province of land and emergency management agencies.

Individual private landowners, homeowner’s associations, and our unincorporated rural communities have a role to play as well.

Toward that end, Envision Chaffee County is hosting a pair of Community Wildfire Readiness meetings Oct. 2-3. These sessions will provide the opportunity to view and comment on computer-generated GIS maps that depict fire risk levels across the county and model where forest treatments will be most effective and economical.

The risk modeling was developed as a pilot project by the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute at CSU in conjunction with development of our Community Wildfire Protection Plan.

The new maps combine location of homes and infrastructure such as communications towers, power lines, and water resource facilities, with additional natural values like critical wildlife habitat, watershed corridors, and areas particularly susceptible to post-fire runoff and flooding.

The modeling combines these values with analysis of both wildfire risk and cost-per-acre to conduct forest treatments like prescribed burns and thinning.

A key outcome of the project is to determine where Chaffee Common Ground funds can be best leveraged with agency efforts to improve forest health and reduce the danger of catastrophic wildfire.

Of parallel importance to the landscape-scale mitigation efforts contemplated by federal and state agencies, treatment of private land is essential to an effective wildfire mitigation program as well.

The two upcoming information sessions, hosted by Envision Chaffee County through its Fire and Healthy Landscapes Partnership, will convene representatives from many of the agencies mentioned.

They will help residents understand the modeling and maps, and also inform landowners of the many resources available supporting private land assessment and treatment.

Attendees will gain a better understanding of forest health and wildfire risk, existing agency programs and efforts, and new initiatives being developed for our community.

The meetings are Wednesday, Oct. 2, at the Poncha Springs Town Hall, and Thursday, Oct. 3, at the Buena Vista Community Center. Both sessions run from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., are free, and are open to all members of the Chaffee County community. 

As recent events make clear, Chaffee County is indeed “a community that lives with fire.” How that relationship plays out in the years ahead is a function of the initiative we demonstrate now.

Please join me and your neighbors for important conversation on the best path forward. I look forward to seeing you Oct. 2 or 3.

Felt is a Chaffee County commissioner.

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