reprinted from Firewise HOW-TO FALL 2014

An Interview with Ann Cooke, Greater Eastern Jemez WUI
Our communities had a shared wildland fire concern along with the experience of watching over 350 homes burn in Los Alamos in the Sierra Grande Fire (2000). We often discussed the threat wildfire posed to our small developments and some of us actually began mitigation efforts in the 1990s, after noticing the work being done by the USDA Forest Service in our area. With regard to taking part in Firewise, it was word of mouth – hear- ing from our respected friends in the Forest Service about this new program being a good idea that might help get fuel mitiga- tion work underway on private property. There also was the lure of grant money. I personally signed on because I couldn’t fig- ure out any other way to get my neighbors to both change their opinion about the forest where they lived, and to start imple- menting those changed views into fuel mitigation on their own properties.
The Greater Eastern Jemez is located in the Jemez Mountains. Within the six neighboring communities — Areas 1, 2 and 3, La Cueva, Seven Springs, Thompson Ridge, Sierra Los Pinos Area, and Cochiti Mesa – there’s approximately 500 homes. It’s difficult to count actual residents since many don’t reside in their homes year-round, or ever. Using an estimate of four people per household, there are perhaps 2,000 people who could be affected by a potential wildland fire. One of our challenges is homes/properties with absentee owners mixed in with resident owners, and unimproved prop- erties with never-seen owners; many of whom we can’t identify or contact.
We aim to provide new and different opportunities for property owners to deal with slash, or to help them find contractors to cut trees, or just provide friendly information and discussion. Whatever they are willing to consider, we are willing to discuss.
Renewal is important because it offers us something to point to and a source of pride. I present our Firewise status as a gift given by concerned neighbors to our communities, in which any community member can be a participant — just by helping themselves.
After all these years of our involvement with Firewise, viewpoints are changing and consensus is changing to the belief that fire is part of our environment and that the true forest isn’t really what we have now, with too many trees.
Luck matters. There were those who had done everything and their homes burned to the ground, while others who’d done little made it through. There are no guarantees. Fuel mitigation is one part of the solution, but understanding why and how buildings burn is also something homeowners should be trying to understand.
With the evi- dence that some prepared buildings still burned, the doubters pointed to this as evidence that, really, there is nothing to be done to guarantee a positive outcome. And, you know, they are right. I can’t guarantee a positive outcome. But I can reduce the odds of a bad outcome. That isn’t as satisfying as a guarantee, though, so everyone needs to evaluate for themselves whether it is worth their effort. We have to accept the presence of fire as a healthy, natural thing — when not catastrophic — to aid us in avoiding a truly catastrophic fire. My dream is that we will reach the point where those of us living in the wildland/urban interface welcome fire in our neighborhoods, and that we learn how to live with fire because we understand that we don’t have the choice of excluding it. We only delude ourselves when we think we have a choice.
It’s been very rewarding to see the changes in people and their acceptance of what needs to be done. For example, they don’t complain to the Forest Service when their staff does a controlled burn. There’s a social change in that regard. When I go to a homeowners meeting in Los Pinos and tell them “We can get Firewise renewal if you report what you’re doing,” and they report on $25,000-worth of volunteer hours, it demonstrates that people are taking action and doing things. And then there’s the growing acceptance that thinner landscape (less trees) is an attractive view. So, there’s less resistance to “cutting” forest.
We’re com- prised of neighboring communities and understand discussing our similar concerns could benefit us all. Since there’s not a centralized homeowners’ asso- ciation, discussing issues among our community members does go slower, but we also began our work eight years before our participation in the Firewise program, so we’ve been putting practices into play and influencing each other for a very long time. When it comes to individual communities within GEJ and influential action, envy can sometimes be a factor. Part of what got Thompson Ridge started was they saw what the Forest Service did for us in Sierra Los Pinos and they began to ask, “why aren’t you doing that for us, too?” The Forest Service has and continues to put a lot of effort into communities up here. Over time as they thinned trees/ vegetation along the roadside people would see the differ- ences and realized it wasn’t such a bad thing to do.

How-To thanks Ann Cooke, president of the GEJ Wildland/Urban Interface Corporation, for providing the informa- tion for this Community Example.

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