Boulder fire recovery mired in property tangle
The Daily Camera
BOULDER – Two-thirds of the land burned by the Fourmile Fire is privately owned, and the majority of those parcels are long, narrow strips strewn over the landscape, crashing into each other at disorderly angles.
The chaotic collage of property boundaries – the result of old mining claims – is creating a headache for Boulder County, which must collect permission slips from each and every landowner before beginning restoration efforts in the spring, including dropping straw from helicopters onto the worst-burned areas.
In all, the county needs signed slips from about 520 landowners, and as of last week, about 190 had been returned. Of the total number of landowners, about 75 live out of state – including in other countries such as New Zealand, Italy and England.
“We’ve gotten the best response from the people who lost their homes,” said Garry Sanfacon, head of Boulder County’s Fourmile Fire Recovery Center. “I think the biggest issue here is that we haven’t reached everyone yet.”
County staffers have so far mainly pushed signing the permission slips at community meetings held both in Boulder and in the mountain communities affected by the fire. And they’ve relied on those who’ve showed up at the meetings to spread the word.
“Some folks are starting to talk about this as a community social responsibility to each other, saying ‘We’re all in this together,”‘ Sanfacon said. “We actually have people now going to their neighbors and getting them to sign it.” The Fourmile Fire, which started Sept. 6, burned 6,179 acres of land and destroyed 169 properties.
Boulder County hopes to mulch about 1,800 acres of the most severely burned land on slopes between 20 and 60 degrees. The mulch is critical because it decreases runoff after rainstorms and therefore reduces erosion.
With just a few months to go before mulching should begin, the county is now looking at other methods for reaching landowners, including direct mailings.
The permission slip itself, which can be found at bouldercounty.org/fourmilefire, is mostly boilerplate text used by the Natural Resources Conservation Division, a federal agency that works exclusively on private lands at the request of landowners, according to Boyd Byelich, the division’s district conservationist for the Boulder area.
Byelich said none of the landowners affected by the Fourmile Fire have outright refused to sign a permission slip, but some have been cautious.
“People that are very familiar with us, there’s no hesitation,” he said. “But we’re the government, and the comfort level with that can be pretty low.”
In general, Byelich and Sanfacon have heard concerns that the permission slips would give the government too much power to work on their properties, though both men said the work would be limited to aerial mulching and reseeding within 100 feet of roads and driveways.
“I tell them, ‘It doesn’t say you’re going to let me on there to hunt and fish whenever I want, or bring my kids to go sledding because you have a nice hill behind your house,”‘ Byelich said. “It’s very specific to the wildfire.” In his experiences, Byelich said repeated interaction with the homeowners often helps people get comfortable with the agency and with signing the permission form. Even so, he doesn’t expect the county will get all 520 forms.
“We hope to get 100 percent, but I don’t know if that’s possible,” he said. “If we don’t, I’m not sure what will happen at that point.”
Sanfacon also said it’s not clear what will happen if the county doesn’t get all the permission slips, but he said the county is starting to explore options and look at what other areas have done in similar circumstances.
In Santa Barbara, Calif. – where residents have suffered through a number of devastating wildfires in recent years – the local Office of Emergency Services has had varying levels of success with getting affected landowners to sign permission slips for a process known as hydromulching.
“In two of the fires, we’ve had big swaths of private land and government land, and obtaining permission to hydromulch was fairly straightforward,” said Michael Harris, emergency operations chief for the county of Santa Barbara. “But in another fire in which we had very much smaller parcels, it became very difficult to get a large number of property owners to agree to hydromulching.”
In the latter case, the county had to abandon its efforts to drop the hydromulch from the air, and instead, workers applied it by hand where they were allowed, Harris said.
Still, Sanfacon said he’s not worried yet: “We have time,” he said.
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