Glen Haven community benefits from Firewise USA® program

Matt Norville

Matt Norville, a forester for the Colorado State Forest Service in the Fort Collins Field Office, is involved in the Firewise USA program, a community outreach initiative focused on wildfire mitigation.

The Colorado State Forest Service has been involved in wildfire mitigation efforts in Glen Haven, Colorado, in recent years. The community was recognized as a Firewise USA® site and updated its Community Wildfire Protection Plan in 2020, prior to the Cameron Peak Fire.

Kevin Zagorda, Glen Haven Area volunteer fire chief, said that without the local mitigation work, the community would have incurred more losses during the Cameron Peak Fire.

Matt Norville, forester for the Colorado State Forest Service in the Fort Collins Field Office, recently talked with SOURCE about the Firewise USA program and how it helped the Glen Haven community.

Norville graduated from Colorado State University with bachelor’s degrees in natural resource management and forestry in 2012. He is a former wildland firefighter, previously worked for the Bureau of Land Management and was an intern for the Colorado State Forest Service, which is a service and outreach agency of the Warner College of Natural Resources at CSU.

Q: What is your job like, as a forester?

Norville: My current day-to-day is quite varied. I do everything from grant administration to managing contractors to conducting inventory on forest conditions. My main goal is to improve the health and the quality of our forests.

Currently our biggest threat is overstocked forests, or having too many trees in the forest. Our aim is to get the forest conditions to where they’re resistant and resilient to various disturbances including wildfires. We also take into account what the forests looked like back in the 1800s and how future disturbances, like climate change, will change that.

Q: What is Firewise, and why is the program important? 

Norville: The Firewise program is sponsored by the National Fire Protection Association, which is part of the U.S. Forest Service and the National Association of State Foresters. We get funds from the federal government to administer the program to provide recognition and incentives for rural mountain communities like Glen Haven.

The Colorado State Forest Service provides education and assistance through the Firewise program to residents and communities to help in preparing their homes against a wildfire.

Each community is different. There are different ways to go about the process, depending upon the needs of the community. When we know what those needs are, we can figure out how to best accommodate them.

Each community is different. There are different ways to go about the process, depending upon the needs of the community. When we know what those needs are, we can figure out how to best accommodate them.

— Matt Norville, a forester for the Colorado State Forest Service

Q: What are the steps to becoming a Firewise USA site in Colorado?

 Norville: The first step is to form a Firewise board or committee, and the next step is to conduct a wildfire risk assessment. That means going through the community and various sites, and seeing what the potential problems are. This could be anything from having too narrow of a road that won’t allow fire trucks or other resources to go through, or identifying acres that need to be treated.

The third step is to hold a wildfire risk reduction educational outreach event and that’s usually a community festival or a community workday. At many of these events, the Colorado State Forest Service hosts an educational booth or presents wildfire mitigation information to residents. Glen Haven had chipping days where they cut branches and logs that needed to be trimmed in order to avoid a potential fire hazard.

Fourth, communities must invest a minimum of $27.20 per dwelling unit annually in risk reduction activities. “Dwelling” means site and not a single specific structure. Finally, communities must apply for recognition using the Firewise program management portal.

Firewise is important because it provides a plan and a framework to the community to prepare for the dangers of wildfires in mountain communities. It amplifies recognition of the danger and lets people take steps to prevent damage.

You can learn more on the Colorado State Forest Service website.

Q: What happened in Glen Haven during the Cameron Peak Fire? 

Norville: On Oct. 14, we had a lot of extreme temperatures with low humidity. It was also in rough terrain, a lot of wilderness area where there weren’t preventative measures taken.

That day we had a lot of high wind speeds greater than 70 miles per hour. The fire was growing in beetle kill area, which was an area of overgrowth devastated by mountain pine beetle around 2009. There were lots of dead trees that could go up in flames very easily. We were also in a drought, and so these conditions encouraged a wildfire to pick up speed and grow quite widely and quickly.

The fire even got to the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park, which is the highest point and the ridge where water either flows to the Pacific or Atlantic oceans. The fire jumped the Divide three times that day, so we were really facing extreme fire behavior.

There was great work that the Glen Haven Area Volunteer Fire Department did previously to reduce potential fuel to that fire. Thanks to this work done through the Firewise program, we saved about 40 houses. The fire only brought one structure totally down within the Glen Haven community.

In total, 469 structures were burned throughout the whole Cameron Peak Fire. Without previous efforts, a lot more houses within Glen Haven would have been lost.

Q: What steps can people in the Mountain West take to protect their own homes and property? 

Norville: People living up in the mountains should visit the Firewise USA information on our website. We have a lot of information on the Colorado State Forest Service site on how to prepare your home and property for wildfire.

Also, it’s good to have a professional provide recommendations. We foresters work all across the state. We can do site visits for people for a small fee. We’ll walk the property with the owners and point out areas that can and will likely catch fire.

It could be that you have a bunch of pine needles in your gutter or firewood underneath your deck. We’re trained to view hazards, and we’ll point those out. We can help guide you into what trees to remove, too, to protect your house.

Even if you don’t have a house in the mountains, there are ways to be fire safe. You might recreate outside a lot and be vigilant about the local fire restrictions and bans going on. You should know when it’s appropriate to have campfires and when you’re not supposed to. And then finally, you should support the state forest service and other agencies that are doing this work to keep people and their homes safe.