Partnering to Protect the Estes Valley from Wildfire

By: David Wolf, Estes Valley Fire Protection District chief,

and Travis Machalek, Town of Estes Park town administrator

In 2020, the two largest fires in Colorado state history burned immediately adjacent to the Estes Valley Fire Protection District (District) boundary. The Cameron Peak Fire raged just to the north of town, ultimately burning 208,913 acres within Larimer County and forcing evacuation of neighboring communities. The East Troublesome Fire came from the west, burning 193,812 acres and jumping the Continental Divide to force the evacuation of the entire Estes Valley.

Wildfires do not care about political boundaries. Neither Cameron Peak nor East Troublesome started anywhere near the boundaries of Town or the District. Indeed, the fire that would ultimately force the evacuation of the valley did not even begin in the same county. As wildfires become more common, and their behavior more extreme, both the Town and the District have recognized the need for increased multi-jurisdictional cooperation in mitigation efforts. Efforts began in 2017 following other significant incidents across the country to encourage local cooperation and joint planning in anticipation of a major disaster. Not only does multi-jurisdictional cooperation make sense from a physical standpoint – a stand of trees will burn the same regardless of whether they are owned by the state, the federal government, or a private land-owner – it also makes sense in an era where all governmental agencies are expected to do more with less and are looking for ways to leverage resources to achieve the best possible outcomes for their constituents.

The Estes Valley is dedicated to continuing a successful history of multi-jurisdictional efforts to protect our community from wildfire. The foundation for this continued cooperation is an updated Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP). CWPPs help communities assess local hazards and identify strategic investments to mitigate wildfire risk and promote preparedness. The Estes Valley Fire Protection District Community Wildfire Protection Plan Update was completed in 2022 through a collaborative effort that included the Estes Valley Fire Protection District, the Town of Estes Park, Larimer County, the Colorado State Forest Service, and the Estes Valley Watershed Coalition. The effort also benefitted from the participation of advisory team members from the Larimer County Office of Emergency Management, Northern Water, Rocky Mountain National Park, and the United States Forest Service (among others). This CWPP provides actionable recommendations for reducing fire hazards, hardening homes, and increasing evacuation safety.

Following completion of the CWPP, the Fire District has reprioritized one employee to focus on implementation of that plan. Supported by additional grant funded positions, the Fire District hopes to leverage partnerships and encourage neighborhood champions to improve mitigation around the community. As the District increases its capacity with wildfire focused positions, they hope to facilitate larger grant-funded opportunities for landscape-scale mitigation to the benefit of everyone downwind. The determinations on priorities comes from the CWPP but also through conversations with partners, such as the Town, on what might have the greatest return on investment.

Another example of the strength of these partnerships can be seen in the cooperation between the Fire District and the Town’s Utilities Department. The Fire District and Town have collaborated on protection and expansion of the water system, especially for hydrant density and locations, and have coordinated on mitigation projects for the Town’s electrical utility by considering priorities and impacts during high wildfire danger days. The Fire District and Town have also come together on multiple occasions for emergency management training and tabletops to ensure seamless integration during large-scale incidents.

The Town has budgeted $500,000 in wildfire mitigation funds for 2023. The intent of this appropriation is to provide a source of match-funding that will enable the Town and the Fire District to take advantage of grant opportunities in order to conduct large-scale wildfire mitigation projects identified in the CWPP. This $500,000 appropriation is paired with additional Town funding to hire a fixed-term grant writer to work with the Town and District to identify grant opportunities and prepare competitive applications.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) includes significant funding commitments to address causes and effects of wildfire, including $500 million in grants for community wildfire defense, $500 million for conducting mechanical thinning, $500 million to install and research firebreaks, and $500 million to conduct prescribed burns. This funding represents a generational opportunity to complete the highest-priority mitigation projects identified in the CWPP. By working in close cooperation with each other, the Town and the District hope to access these sources of funding to leverage the wildfire mitigation funds appropriated by the Town and make significant progress in implementing the EVFPD CWPP.

It is clear to both the Town and the District that collaborating and cooperating with each other and our county, state, and federal partners is absolutely essential to protect lives and property in the Estes Valley from wildfire. Each agency has their scope and focus, but there is clear overlap and shared values that enable successful coordination for a mutual benefit.