Cedar Heights/FD partnership setting fire-mitigation ‘example’

       Remote from the city (yet quite visible), Cedar Heights is a neighborhood of more than 220 large-lot homes spread out on the hillside that rises just west of the Garden of the Gods and east of Pike National Forest. At its top is a 300-acre private open space called Solitude Park.

A "masticator" machine chews up dead brush in Solitude Park, a private open space for the Cedar Heights neighborhood near the Garden of the Gods. The work is funded through a federal grant program through which the City Fire Department seeks partnerships with mountainside neighborhood associations on fire-mitigation strategies.
Westside Pioneer photo

       Until the past year or so, that remoteness could have meant a big fire problem. The park, left unmanaged for years, was thick with dead or dying scrub oak that a wildfire would have gladly fed on, according to Andrew Notbohm, Wildland Fuels Program coordinator for the Colorado Springs Fire Department.
       But all that's been changing. Proactive Cedar Heights residents plugged into the program, which is funded with a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) “pre-disaster mitigation” grant. Brush-clearing has occurred on about 100 park acres - plus nearly 50 acres of community property adjacent to homes and along an emergency escape route - leaving little to burn between the healthy evergreen trees and bushes that remain.
       The work does not guarantee a fire won't happen, “but we've changed the fuel loading so that this area cannot sustain a crown fire [so-called because they move through the upper parts, or crowns, of trees], which is the most destructive type,” Notbohm said.
       Cedar Heights residents happily joined Fire Department representatives in showing off the park improvements for the media Feb. 17. In a park area 100 yards or so from one of the many far-flung Cedar Heights houses, a contractor was driving a bulky masticator machine through a pocket of dead undergrowth, its metal jaws chomping the stuff into sticks that will become mulch to help grass eventually grow. In its wake were workers using chain saws to cut closer to the trees.
       “We want to support the Fire Department and what they've done here,” said resident Dick Standaert. “This is an example of the work that can be done.”
       Standaert is one of several Cedar Heights residents who serve on the board of the Solitude Park Corporation. The entity oversees the park, which is in turn held in trust by the Palmer Foundation.
       By “example,” he was referring to the Fire Department's wish to implement the FEMA program (the grant is in its second of three years) in other neighborhoods that are close to the open spaces of the Front Range. One nearby area that's getting attention through the program is Bear Creek Park, above the Skyway neighborhood. (Similar work, funded through the Garden of the Gods Foundation, has been occurring in the Garden.)
       As Notbohm put it, “Our tag line is sharing responsibility with the neighborhood associations for wildfire risks on their properties.”
       The way the program works in a given area, the grant pays for 75 percent of the cost of brush removal in an area, with the other 25 percent being the responsibility of the association.
       But fundraising to gather neighborhood money isn't necessarily required. According to Standaert, Cedar Heights qualified for its share via “sweat equity” with the city's ongoing Firewise program, including an annual chipping program and some residents changing to less combustible types of roof and exterior house materials on their homes.
       What happens after the grant is over and dead brush starts to appear again? Notbohm said that the Fire Department encourages neighborhoods to look into “remitigation” efforts every few years in areas that have been masticated. Requiring smaller equipment, the work would be less expensive (he estimated about $200 an acre) than the $800 to $1,200 an acre it costs for clearing overgrown areas such as Solitude Park for the first time.

Westside Pioneer article