Preventing a community’s worst day from happening | Team Rubicon

Preventing a community’s worst day from happening

Mitigating future fires in Grand County, Colorado

Wildfires have been growing in intensity and frequency all around the world, and the U.S. state of Colorado is no exception. In the fall of 2020, a small fire started near the East Troublesome Creek in Grand County and was whipped by high winds into the second-most destructive fire in the state’s history. When the inferno finally settled over a month later, more than 500 homes and other structures were destroyed, over 190,000 acres were devastated, and an elderly couple was dead.

In the summer of 2022, Team Rubicon went to Grand County for a fire mitigation operation in partnership with the Red Cross and the local Emergency Management and Wildfire Council teams. Team Rubicon has conducted wildfire mitigation services for years, and completed 35 wildfire mitigation operations just in 2021, but this was the biggest mitigation project Greyshirts have performed, so far.

Over the course of six weeks, 175 Greyshirt volunteers from the local community, from broader Colorado, and from Canada, trekked nearly 3,000 meters into the Colorado mountains to help build community resilience against future wildfires. Greyshirts worked with hundreds of homeowners to reduce the hazard and, in a new pilot program to broaden Team Rubicon’s mitigation capabilities, assess the risk to their properties.

The most dangerous area for wildfires is the first five feet around a house, or the Home Ignition Zone (HIZ), which is where Greyshirts removed flammable vegetation and debris that could easily catch fire. At the same time, because embers can be very small and travel far, they searched for unsecured fire-entry points to a home, like unscreened vents or chimneys, while also assessing the home itself. They advised homeowners on what more they could do themselves to protect their homes, like replacing roofs and siding with fire-resistant materials.

Among the five Canadian Greyshirts was Jacquie Luscombe, a freshly certified sawyer from Ontario. Sawyers were in high demand for this operation and saw-certified Greyshirts were in low supply locally, so she stepped up. This was her first-time volunteering with Team Rubicon USA, and she admits it wasn’t easy. Aside from travelling over 2,500 kilometers to get to Colorado, said Luscombe, “Working at 8,300 feet above sea level, climbing up and down ravines, and walking the streets in heavy work boots takes a toll.” For a week she helped the residents of Grand County build resilience to future wildfires into their community, first as a sawyer and then on a HIZ team, inspecting the homes and buildings at risk for wildfire.

Despite the hard work, Luscombe says it wasn’t all blood, sweat, and tears, “The week flew by. I met so many great people, and now have friends in different parts of the U.S. I learned a great deal, worked extremely hard, and even learned how to play canasta.”

Those were sentiments echoed by Grand County’s under-resourced and overworked emergency management personnel who, after the East Troublesome fire in 2020, found themselves overwhelmed by the number of Grand County homeowners interested in assessing their homes and taking preventative measures against future fires. “We’re a small department,” said East Grand Assistant Fire Marshal Ryan Mowrey, “We have small fire prevention divisions. So, me getting out to 300 homes in the summer would be a stretch.” Team Rubicon relieved some of that load. “This is a huge, huge help; a huge benefit to us.”

After assessing several properties for fire safety, Greyshirts were able to do mitigation work on many homes. “It was visible to the team and to the public,” said Greyshirt Luscombe, “that Team Rubicon knew what they were doing and were damn good at it.”