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Summit County REALTORS® Use Education to Prevent Wildfires & Costly Legislative Mandates

Wildfires are a serious threat to Colorado's Summit County, where more than 23,000 homes are within the Wildland-Urban Interface, a government-designated zone indicating high wildfire potential.

"Insurance companies have told us that Summit County is 'Ground Zero' for wildfire risk, despite never having had a major wildfire," says Sarah Thorsteinson, Chief Executive Officer of the 580-member Summit Association of REALTORS® (SAR). To this dubious distinction, in 2013, the Governor's Taskforce on Wildfire added several troubling recommendations: that there be a disclosure at the point of sale that a home is at high risk for wildfire; that a website be created rating individual properties for wildfire risk; and that costly mandatory mitigation measures be put in place, along with an additional property tax. Concerned about the expense to property owners and would-be home-buyers, and the stigma this could mean for certain homes on the market, the REALTORS® set out to prove that voluntary programs could be just as effective in curbing wildfire risk. So far, the state government has allowed counties time to do just that, but the legislative threat has remained real.   

"Our Board of Directors recognized the need for us to be proactive," says Thorsteinson.  SAR developed a campaign whose three goals are: to educate the public to encourage voluntary mitigation of individual properties; to prevent mandatory requirements that would prove costly and detrimental to homeowners; and to continue building the positive image of REALTORS® as professionals who care about the community.  

For several years, the Summit Association and the Colorado Association had been sharing the expense of producing a mailer publicizing Summit County's popular free chipping program. The service encourages property owners to clear defensible space around homes and bring the potential wildfire-fuel to the curb, where the county workers collect and chip it several times per fire season, converting it to bio-fuel.  

In 2016, SAR created a Defensible Space Fund to help local families safeguard their properties. The fund was promoted on the mailers, and REALTOR® members began getting calls from the public. "Mitigation is not cheap—clearing can cost up to $300 per tree. And, understandably, people are afraid they will have to clear cut their properties," says Thorsteinson. "But, in fact, creating a defensible space around a structure can add value to a property by admitting sunshine and increasing views." In 2017, the REALTORS® were able to fund the mitigation of three properties. At the same time, a Game Changer Grant from the REALTOR® Party allowed SAR to publicize the county chipping program on television and radio, making the public even more aware that without voluntary mitigation, the government recommendations could be instated.  REALTORS® handed out work gloves and protective eyewear at local events, and volunteered to help seniors with clearing.

The REALTORS®' efforts are making an impact: the Lake Dillon Fire & Rescue Squad recently presented an award to Thorsteinson recognizing the association's work.  Local arborists and tree services are promoting the SAR Defensible Space Fund, and several have joined the association as affiliate members. Perhaps most telling is that when Thorsteinson had the opportunity to testify before the state legislature's Wildfire Matters Review Committee recently, rather than revisiting the threatened mitigation mandates, committee members asked if she needed seed money to replicate SAR's programs across the state. "It's been a real win!" says Thorsteinson. "We are thrilled to have been able to run such an effective campaign, and are so grateful to the REALTOR® Party for all its support."

To learn more about how the Summit Association of REALTORS® is leading the way in educating property owners about wildfire prevention and mitigation, contact Chief Executive Officer Sarah Thorsteinson, at 970-468-8700.

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