Teens build leadership skills through wildfire mitigation with Boulder County – Boulder Daily Camera

Dozens of teens worked with Boulder County Wildfire Partners to perform wildfire mitigation for 10 homeowners this summer. (Courtesy photo)

This summer, dozens of teens mitigated the threat of wildfires for 10 local homeowners thanks to a collaboration between Nederland-based youth organization TEENS, Inc. and Boulder County program Wildfire Partners.

Three crews, comprosed of roughly 12 teens, worked on fire mitigation projects for Wildfire Partners from mid-June through early August. The participants were members of the TEENS, Inc. Youth Corps crew and the TeamWorks summer employment program, run by TEENS, Inc. and nonprofit Lincoln Hills Cares.

A TEENS, Inc. crew works on a wildfire mitigation project in Boulder County. (Courtesy photo)

“Our goal is that youth are learning to be more professional in the workplace and learning skills such as healthy risk taking, perseverance and resilience,” said Ariel Gustafson, director of out of school programs for TEENS, Inc.

In their work with Wildfire Partners, teens removed tree limbs, heavy accumulations of pine needles and other combustible debris. They also cut tall grasses prone to catching flames and installed ignition-resistant materials.

“Those are things that are really important, but are also within the scope of what a teen crew could accomplish,” said Mary Sanders, program specialist with Wildfire Partners.

Last summer, the Wildfire Partners and TEENS, Inc. team was only able to finish one mitigation project due to a lack of crew leaders in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. This summer, however, the group completed 10 projects with the county over four weeks.

“I think we saw the potential of these projects,” Sanders said, explaining this summer’s 10-project goal. “We also really enjoyed the work that we did last year, so I think we just really wanted to lean in and take on more.”

Wildfire Partners, a program within the Boulder County Community Planning and Permitting office, provides custom wildfire mitigation assessments and promotes wildfire awareness to county residents. This summer’s 10 projects were based on applications received by Wildfire Partners and were carried out free of charge to homeowners.

Sanders said the TEENS, Inc. crews place a lot of emphasis on positive youth development, like dedicating parts of the work day to talk to the teens about leadership principles and problem solving. The leadership aspect also plays a role in the program’s retention across summers.

“It’s not a one-year thing – we want people to come back and continue to grow and develop as young adults,” Sanders said. “And we love working with (teens) because we think it’s really important to engage young adults in the world of wildfire and being environmental stewards.”

Gustafson said crew members will often return as crew leaders, which aligns with the program’s goal of fostering leadership skills. Each crew also has members from both rural and urban communities as a way to connect teens with peers from new places.

“Bringing people in from really different backgrounds to work together is probably the highlight for most of our youth,” Gustafson said.

The impact from the partnership extends to the homeowners who receive the mitigation measures. Sanders said many deal with a “very real” risk of wildfires and are sometimes close to losing their home insurance. The mitigation labor required for their properties can often be too demanding or too costly, resulting in a big need the teens are able to fill.

“It’s an incredible weight that gets lifted off of their shoulders,” she said. “At the end of projects, they’re usually brought to tears. They just, I think, get really moved by seeing the teens working so hard and doing so much for one person that they don’t even know.”

Sanders added that the impact achieved through the partnership this year was more than the county could have hoped for.

“It definitely sets us up for some really interesting projects in the future,” she said.

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