For Wildfire Mitigation, Volunteers Let the Chips Fly in Colorado

Tom Murphy

A self-avowed environmentalist and Greyshirt reflects on sawing, sweating, and mulching and why providing wildfire mitigation assistance matters.

In October 2020, the East Troublesome Fire in north central Colorado torched 193,812 acres, jumping the Continental Divide (despite the lack of fuels above the tree line), becoming the second largest fire in Colorado recorded history and one of the most rapid-fire expansions ever. As any Californian like myself will tell you, the American West is experiencing its worst drought in 1,200 years. The combination of drought and elevated heat from climate change has created a tinderbox in Western states and across the globe. Using climate data from 1979 to 2019, researchers found that the number of heatwaves occurring simultaneously in the mid- to high-latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere was seven times greater in the 2010s than in the 1980s.

Adding to this powder keg, Americans have steadily moved into Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) areas, with more than 60,000 communities—and 40% of all Americans—in the United States now at risk for WUI fires. The American WUI area continues to grow by approximately 2 million acres per year and not only in the West. The top five states with the greatest number of homes in WUI areas are, in order: California, Texas, Florida, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.

A team of Greyshirts deployed on fire mitigation operation Rage Against the Ravine in Colorado in 2022.

It was against this backdrop that the Red Cross recently provided a $200,000 grant for Team Rubicon, the veteran-led humanitarian and disaster response nonprofit, to lead a fire mitigation operation in the Grand County/Winter Park area of Colorado. As one of those volunteers—or Greyshirts, as we’re known—it was also, by far, the most rewarding volunteer effort I’ve ever witnessed and participated in, out of dozens throughout my career. 

While mitigation services such as these are nothing new for Team Rubicon—in 2021 alone the organization completed more than 35 wildfire operations and 25 mitigation operations throughout the U.S.—this would be the first time we had provided mitigation services at this scale. Since fire embers can travel a full half mile, the ripple effect of mitigation is considerable.

This past June, working in partnership with the Grand County Emergency Management and the Grand County Wildfire Council teams, Team Rubicon launched large-scale mitigation operations in Winter Park Highlands, Icebox, and Alpine Park, all designated Very High Hazard wildfire areas. Over the course of the operation Team Rubicon Greyshirts first conducted Home Ignition Zone assessments, then worked with homeowners on 108 homes to address the issues found. 

Addressing those issues included clearing potential fire fuel sources from around homes to establish fire-safe perimeters and create buffers between property and future fires, delimbing trees up to the 12-foot mark to help reduce that chance that any tree that does catch fire will generate enough heat to get into the canopy of the forest, and taking down trees and stumps in nearby ravines as a means of fuel reduction.

Such mitigation has a high ROI: According to FEMA, on average, every $1 spent in mitigation results in $6 of saved costs, whether that’s money that would have been spent fighting the fires or helping homeowners recover from damage. In some areas with more expensive real estate, the return can be as high as $40 for every $1 invested in prevention.

To provide that kind of mitigation to the communities of Colorado, Team Rubicon launched Operation Rage Against the Ravine, and I joined it. In addition to veteran volunteers, Team Rubicon’s all-volunteer mitigation teams also included first responders, retired firefighters, police, and EMS professionals. Team Rubicon is also uniquely capable of marshaling one of the largest volunteer armies of skilled chainsaw operators, known as “sawyers”.

So in early July, at 9,800 feet above sea level, with no chainsaw skills to offer, I deployed as a “general responder” and joined the Greyshirts in Colorado on woodchipper duty, following behind the sawyers as they diligently and expertly felled select trees. Our crew collected tree stumps, dead trees and shrubbery to be fed into the violent, ear-splitting maw of our crew’s woodchipper, which gobbled up this deadly fuel, converting it into useful mulch, spitting it out at 70 mph into designated safe areas. With two sets of earplugs, long sleeves and heavy work pants, the thin air and 85-degree temps made for one of the most grueling but satisfying work weeks I’ve ever “enjoyed.” As a self-avowed environmentalist, converting a potentially deadly pile of fuel for fire into useful mulch (the increased organic matter in the soil results in healthier plant growth) was more gratifying than I could imagine—even as I was losing seven pounds in four days of volunteering. 

Equally inspiring was the effusive praise and gratitude from locals whose homes we were safeguarding, rendering our work a complete labor of love. One 77-year-old gentleman, no longer capable of clearing his own property, must have thanked us six times in an hour. Another woman marveled “oh my God, not only do I feel so much safer, but now I have a gorgeous view of the mountains I never knew I had!” 

Filthy dirty, dripping with sweat and encrusted in woodchips, I never felt so good.

But what really set this experience apart from other volunteer activities I’d been a part of was my broader volunteer experience. This included daily morning briefs with detailed work orders, a rigorous adherence to safety protocols, afternoon debriefs and a genuine, sustained practice of daily volunteer recognition via callouts for any and all volunteers who went above and beyond on a given day, no matter the task. Leaders stressed why we were there, how we were contributing, how important everyone’s interconnected roles were and how grateful they were for our participation. Every day we tallied the amount of acreage cleared and celebrated our perfect safety record—in all the operation cleared roughly 267,000 cubic feet of debris and served 240 individuals.

In the process, I made new, lifelong friends, learned how to safeguard my own house and arrived home eager to learn how to use a chainsaw. 

I can’t wait to do it again.

Watch: Mitigating Future Fires after the East Troublesome Fire in Colorado

A fire marshall from Grand County and battalion chief from the Headwaters Region reveal what it was like to watch a fire encroach upon their Colorado town and talk about how mitigation works and why it matters.

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