FireWise of Southwest Colorado had some big things to celebrate at its bimonthly meeting on March 24, with three national awards, including one for Vallecito.
Smokey Bear was on hand to present flowers and give hugs.
An award for wildfire-mitigation innovation was given to FireWise of Southwest Colorado itself. Kent Grant, the Durango District forester for the Colorado Forest Service, presented the award to Executive Director Pam Wilson, who accepted it on behalf of the organization and her three coordinators, Melody Walters, Bill Trimarco and Rebecca Samulski.
"They created this award for folks who are focused on fire mitigation, who are being proactive," said Chris Barth, the fire-mitigation specialist based at the Bureau of Land Management Office in Montrose, but whose responsibilities include Southwest Colorado. "I'm really tickled to see FireWise of Southwest Colorado honored with yet another national notch in its belt because they're seen as leaders amongst their peers."
FireWise of Southwest Colorado also has been named one of 17 Fire-adaptive Community Hubs in the nation.
Barth himself was given the Fire Adapted Communities Fire Service Leadership Award.
The Vallecito community, represented by its FireWise Ambassadors Marilyn McCord and Steve Walb, was recognized as a FireWise Communities/USA on Tuesday after almost three years of work and the creation of a Community Wildfire Protection Plan.
Vallecito FireWise volunteers have hosted fire preparation days and helped many of the 500 to 700 households in Vallecito work on fire mitigation plans.
Walb said when a fire in 2012 burned within the old Missionary Ridge fire burn area, it caught many homewowners by surprise.
"We thought we'd had our fire," McCord said.
In 2014, FireWise worked on a forest mitigation project at the intersection of CR 500 and 501, where the trees were so thick it was hard to see around the corner of the road.
Longer range, the volunteers want to work on a way for people to cross Vallecito Creek in case the north end of the valley is cut off by a fire.
"You can't do everything at once," said McCord, who has been working for years on mitigating her property on CR 500. A free FireWise assessment can help homeowners decide what they want to protect on their properties and how to start.
"Vallecito residents have been sharing educational material and starting mitigation work around their homes," said Wilson, the executive director for the area group. "Residents also worked with the Bureau of Reclamation, Upper Pine Fire, and FireWise to establish a drop-off site for slash which is later burned by the fire department or incinerated in an air curtain burner."
To receive Firewise Communities/USA recognition, Vallecito had to meet several requirements including having an assessment (CWPP) in place as well as a Firewise Committee, spending $2 per capita annually, and having an annual Firewise event.
"By preparing homes, structures, and landscapes before a wildfire occurs, Vallecito has dramatically increased the chance that homes and structures will be protected when a wildfire occurs," Grant said.
McCord said mitigation work is "never done." And she added in a time of sustained drought, homeowners who thin out the trees on the property will create healthier conditions for the trees that remain.
"The ones left will have a better chance of survival," she said.
Five other communities in La Plata County also have received the national recognition - Deer Valley Estates, Falls Creek Ranch, Timberdale Ranch, Rancho Mira Sol and Vista de Oro.
Judy Winzell got a standing ovation from her neighbors at Falls Creek as she accepted the Community Wildfire Preparedness Pioneer Award - one of only four in the nation - from Durango Fire Protection District Deputy Chief of Operations Hal Doughty. The DFPD nominated Winzell for the honor.
Ann Butler of the Durango Herald contributed to this article.