Jefferson County is reassessing the definition of the Wildland Urban Interface, working on a revised countywide Community Wildfire Protection Plan, and updating planning and zoning regulations to …
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Jefferson County is reassessing the definition of the Wildland Urban Interface, working on a revised countywide Community Wildfire Protection Plan, and updating planning and zoning regulations to make new construction more firewise.
These are just some of the accomplishments of the Jefferson County Wildfire Task Force as it is being replaced by a wildfire commission. County commissioners will appoint the commission members soon, and the first meeting is scheduled for January.
These issues are part of the commitment to invest time and resources upfront in wildfire mitigation and community education, according to Jeffco Commissioner Lesley Dahlkemper after the task force’s final meeting on Sept. 16. She chaired the task force that was made up of 31 elected officials, firefighters, planning experts and community representatives who took a closer look at the problem and worked to find some solutions.
“Our ultimate goal is to create a more resilient environment that keeps residents and visitors safe by increasing the pace and scale of mitigation as well as other strategies,” Dahlkemper said.
She explained that the task force’s work didn’t stop when the commissioners approved its recommendations in November. Those recommendations included:
• fixing a glaring issue: There is no comprehensive tracking or coordination of current mitigation efforts.
• housing a definitive wildfire prevention and mitigation information page on its website; providing a comprehensive distribution list of organizations, HOAs and business groups; and regularly sharing mitigation and risk-prevention information.
• better defining and mapping WUI areas in the county; doing a much-needed update to the county’s 2011 Community Wildfire Protection Plan; hiring a grant writer dedicated to seek additional money for mitigation; and exploring a tax option.
“We can’t afford to work in silos,” Dahlkemper said, noting that more federal and state dollars are available for wildfire mitigation, which could help the county.
Task force members agreed that property owners need to take responsibility for their properties with the help of resources to get wildfire mitigation done.
Wildland Urban Interface
The Wildland Urban Interface, also known as the WUI, is being redefined because just being at 6,400 feet in elevation or higher and in the woods doesn’t actually represent wildfire risk.
The U.S. Fire Administration defines WUI as the “zone of transition between unoccupied land and human development. It is the line, area or zone where structures and other human development meet or intermingle with undeveloped wildland or vegetative fuels.”
Molly Mowery, executive director of the Community Wildfire Planning Center, noted that statewide, 43% of all housing units are in the WUI.
The task force report also noted that the Evergreen and Conifer areas rank as the worst spots in the state in terms of wildfire risk because of their location in the WUI, according to insurance firm Verisk.
Kevin Michalak, Jeffco’s fire management officer, told the task force that the county is collaborating with local, state and federal agencies to find a more appropriate definition, which means that area considered to be in the WUI will likely expand.
County-wide Community Wildfire Protection Plan
Evergreen Fire/Rescue has a CWPP for its district, and both Elk Creek and Inter-Canyon fire departments are finishing theirs. However, there is no recent countywide CWPP to integrate different areas, with the last one written in 2011.
Michalak said many parts of the 2011 CWPP don’t need to be rewritten because the same problems the county had then are the same now. He is working with other agencies and wants to bring in the public to have them be part of the review process.
“If we have this plan and it sits on a shelf,” he said, “nobody will know about it.”
He hopes to have the document finished by July 2022.
Task force member Cindy Latham said she hoped the county CWPP would also look at mitigation along roadways, an important issue in Evergreen and Conifer for evacuations in case of wildfire. She said more grant money would be available if roadway mitigation is part of the county CWPP.
Mowery explained that most successful CWPPs have a sweet spot of being multidisciplinary and inclusive, looking at what wildfire mitigation strategies are realistic. She noted that regular meetings to implement the CWPP are important.
Planning and zoning
Chris O’Keefe, the head of Jeffco Planning and Zoning, said his staff has been working on a wildfire hazard overlay of the zoning regulations.
Currently, the county requires new homes to create defensible space, but the new proposal would include any new structure such as garages and sheds, and replacement of existing structures.
Planning and zoning looks at about 1,000 permits a year in the WUI, and if all of them have defensible space, that could make a big difference, he said. In addition, fire breaks near roadways could be required.
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