Community ambassadors educate, organize homeowners for wildfire mitigation

Deb Hurley Brobst
dbrobst@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 8/12/22

More than 75 residents in the Evergreen, Elk Creek and Inter-Canyon fire departments have stepped up to be what are called community ambassadors, finding ways to motivate their neighbors to mitigate their properties to be more prepared in case of wildfire.

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Community ambassadors educate, organize homeowners for wildfire mitigation

Posted

Motivators. Educators. Workers.

More than 75 residents in the Evergreen, Elk Creek and Inter-Canyon fire districts have stepped up to be what are called community ambassadors, finding ways to motivate their neighbors to mitigate their properties to be more prepared in case of wildfire. The fire departments always are looking for more people to step up to become ambassadors.

While each community ambassador has a different reason for getting involved in the program, all agree about the necessity of the grassroots efforts to mitigate private property. Evergreen and Conifer are considered the No. 1 location for a catastrophic wildfire in the country. It’s not if a wildfire will take place; it’s when.

With government agencies such as Denver Mountain Parks and Jeffco Open Space making mitigation a priority on their properties in the foothills, and grant funding from a variety of sources helping pave the way, it’s time for homeowners to step up, too. To aid homeowners, the fire departments have crews dedicated to chipping slash and staff members performing two types of home assessments: short defensible-space assessments and comprehensive wildfire-prepared assessments. 

Community ambassadors work in their neighborhoods based on each fire department’s Community Wildfire Protection Plan. The plans break neighborhoods into plan units, and the ambassadors assigned to the units create implementation plans to tackle the work to be done. The ambassadors meet with personnel from each fire department’s wildland divisions to discuss goals, potential funding and ideas for working together.

Being an ambassador takes time, they said, but it’s a labor of love. Some ambassadors create a team to help cover all of the neighborhoods in their plan unit. Homeowners associations also help because they have contact information for members.

“(Ambassadors) are the face of their community and a good link between their community and the fire districts,” said Kelleigh McConnaughey, wildfire mitigation specialist for Inter-Canyon and Elk Creek fire departments. “They provide a voice for the community and can bring issues to us.  They are essentially motivators, finding other motivated people to essentially come to a community-wide goal of mitigation, which is really what the wildland division is striving toward when it comes to wildfire and community safety.”

She noted that the volunteer hours the ambassadors put in are amazing.

“They are willing to dedicate time to bring these services to their communities,” McConnaughey said. “We appreciate everything they do.”

The fire departments equip the ambassadors with information they can impart to other homeowners about the importance of mitigation and how to do it.

 

Why they’re ambassadors

Byrne McKenna, the ambassador for the North Turkey Creek area in the Evergreen Fire Protection District, was an ambassador before they were called ambassadors. He also is an Evergreen volunteer firefighter, so helping his neighbors perform fire-mitigation work is vital. When neighbors band together, they can get a lot done. McKenna said of the 400 homes in his plan unit, he figures 15% have completed mitigation while 70% have started.

For Al Leo, who moved to Silver Ranch South in Conifer in 2019, the pandemic gave him time to learn about wildfire mitigation and forest health.

“Being an ambassador seemed to me like a good mix of things," Leo said. "It’s a way to give back to the community, something that is worthwhile and making an impact where we live. Then the other part of it is a belief or a passion that if we can get neighbors motivated and work together and chip away at the stone, we can make a difference. If communities band together, we can make a difference in lowering the risk.”

Heather McGaughey and Elizabeth Campbell became ambassadors for the Swede Gulch and El Rancho area after attending a meeting at Evergreen Fire/Rescue. They say their idea is to start small, beginning with the residents on their road and then expanding to other roads and neighborhoods.

For McGaughey, preparing the area in case of wildfire is important because she lost a home in a wildfire in California in 2017, and she wants to make sure area residents don’t go through the same horrible tragedy.

Campbell, who has lived in Evergreen since 1994, remembers how terrifying the Buffalo Creek Fire was.

Shirley Johnson, the ambassador for Silver Ranch in Conifer, explained that this was a critical time for the area regarding wildfire prevention.

“So many don’t understand why this is important and what needs to be done,” she said. “We need to educate and work together to make a difference.”

 

Motivating residents

Ambassadors said they hope residents understand the need for mitigation, but they still get a variety of responses. Some don’t understand what needs to be done, believe mitigation means cutting down all trees, which isn’t the case, can’t do the work themselves or can’t afford to have the work done.

Some ambassadors orchestrate community mitigation days where everyone gets together to help other property owners, chipping days where homeowners put their slash by the side of the road for chipping, and in Conifer, one ambassador had a slash train where residents with pickup trucks and trailers move along roads to collect slash.

Some ambassadors host community meetings, have tables are community gatherings, present information at homeowners association meetings, erect signs along roads or simply talk one-on-one with neighbors.

Leo noted that he speaks to many newer residents here who are willing to learn and start mitigation. What works for him is cutting slash and limbing trees on his own property because neighbors see him and want to know more.

“A lot of people are surprised they can keep a lot of trees between five and 30 feet from their homes, but they need to consider limbing up trees and raking out pine needles to help keep them from catching fire," McKenna said.

On many properties, the idea is to look for more low-hanging fruit because starting some mitigation somewhere is better than not starting anywhere. That is the message that Jess Moore, Evergreen Fire/Rescue’s reduction risk coordinator, brings to groups regularly.

Moore reminds homeowners that they can start with something simple like clearing pine needles from around the house and from gutters. Maintaining a five-foot non-combustible zone around the home is important.

She emphasizes this point as she works with ambassadors and hopes to recruit more volunteers – one from each neighborhood in Evergreen – to become part of ambassadors plan-unit groups to help get the wildfire-mitigation word out.

“Fire will happen,” Moore said. “It’s our responsibility to create an environment on our properties, so fire can move through without destroying it.”

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