Fighting Fire With Knowledge

Broker-owner Bonnie Smith uses political advocacy and education to protect Colorado homes from wildfires and strengthen her market.

I’d spent years as this corporate Godzilla person flying almost nonstop across the country in the insurance industry, and it had become clear to me that my options for advancement were limited. I took a couple of months off as a sabbatical in the mountains of Colorado, and in the end, I never went back to the company. In 1995, after a few years working as a consultant, I got my license and opened up my own brokerage in Summit, Colo. Eventually I found myself managing an office of twenty or so agents, but over the years I saw a lot of attrition. Turnover is a problem everywhere, but it’s especially acute in these seasonal resort communities. It’s expensive to live in the mountains, and many agents coming out of the recession thought it would be easy to sell up here. Over the years, I stopped replacing agents when they left and now I run a much smaller operation.

Bonnie Smith, CIPS, CRS
Owner-Managing Broker
Exclusive Mountain Retreats Real Estate Inc. Breckenridge, Colo.

A lot of my business is through referrals; I work with four agents scattered around the country who send me clients who are looking to buy in Colorado. But it’s also repeat business; my average client does at least three deals with me. I tend to work with those hardcore investors who want to buy a place up here and rent it out, move money out of the stock market and into real estate, or buy a place their family can enjoy.

Education Over Legislation

The journey that led to the founding of Colorado Project Wildfire actually started with a beetle. The Rocky Mountain pine bark beetle had been just decimating the western slope of the range from Wyoming to New Mexico. These pests are very specific about what they like, and they liked our trees pretty well. When the beetles attack, the trees fall to the forest floor and that provides fuel for forest fires. We had this three-year period starting in 2010 where it was pretty horrific; it took a huge toll on real estate, tourism, and quality of life here. In 2013 I got involved with a group of stakeholders in the community, including firefighters, forestry professionals, legislators, and the Colorado State University extension program, which is the funding body for a wood-chipping program that helps get rid of the trees felled by these beetles. I kind of became real estate’s bark beetle expert in our area, working to educate people about the problem.

Through the contacts I made working on the bark beetle problem with our AE at the Mountain Metro Association of REALTORS®, the media, local officials, and the extension program, I was able to raise awareness about something else I saw coming down the pike at the state level. While serving on the Colorado Association of REALTORS®’ Legislative Policy Committee, I learned that Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and our state legislature were so panic-stricken over the fires that they wanted to create a statewide mandate to require fire mitigation disclosure in a home sale. The proposal was just one of a whole host of other changes that came out of a government task force formed in 2013, primarily composed of insurance people. It made bells go off in my head. The last thing a seller needs is to have to spend $8,000 to $10,000 on a required tree inspection when they’re trying to get a transaction closed. At that point, it made perfect sense to take the great fire-prevention stuff we were doing at the local level and take it statewide. I became the first chair of our state association’s Colorado Project Wildfire committee in 2014 to combat the narrative that legislation and regulation were the answers to our wildfire problems.

Outreach Challenges 

The committee successfully fought off the proposal for mandatory disclosure of fire mitigation. Still, there was more we could do to make our communities safer. And looking at the issues, it quickly became clear that the real estate community had more to contribute. Our local firefighters were trying to work with residents, but they were getting frustrated. They’d been identifying all these areas where they couldn’t send their firefighters in because the land hadn’t been mitigated. Some people felt that the fire department wasn’t doing its duty, but you can’t send firefighters into a situation when their lives are being threatened just because homeowners haven’t been taught how to take care of their properties. The firefighters would go out knocking on doors to educate people about how to mitigate their land, but encountered problems. Many of the houses out here are vacation spots, so homeowners just weren’t around. As real estate professionals, we took a more targeted approach than the fire department, looking at our own lists of homeowners in the area and county tax records to make sure we were getting to the property owners.

Communicating the Risks

In 2015 we secured a $250,000 grant from the Colorado Association of REALTORS®’ Political Action Committee to help cover the costs of printing newsletters about the importance of fire mitigation, hosting events where REALTORS® donated their time to clear brush, and partnering with other nonprofits to get the word out through magnets, fliers, and booths at local events. We also took time to brand our outreach with the local REALTOR® association. When you have REALTORS® explaining to clients the correct way to prepare downed trees for chipping, telling their clients about a free service from the fire department to evaluate the safety of their property, or talking about a tax deduction for creating defensible space around their homes, the information is coming from a nonthreatening source.

We wanted people to know the basics of fire mitigation. You should be taking down dead trees, not healthy ones. It also depends on what kind of trees you have on your property. Anything with lots of fronds, like a fir tree, is bad news in a forest fire. On the other hand, aspen trees are actually fire-resistant. They can help slow fires down because they take a really long time to burn. In that way, a stand of aspens right outside your mountain home could actually be a defense against fire.

Wood shingles are possibly the worst thing you can put on your roof in terms of fire resistance. We need to get them replaced. But roofs are incredibly expensive and the style is part of many homeowner associations’ regulations. It’s really hard to sell, but we just have to go HOA to HOA and explain why this is important. I’m particularly excited about the use of fire-resistant concrete that’s made to look just like wood.

Hard Evidence

In 2014, the assistant chief of the Lake Dillon Fire Department told me they had been getting around eight to 10 calls a week about fire mitigation, but during the month after our first targeted newsletter went out, they got 642 calls. But the real test came last summer, when wildfires were raging all around Breckenridge. I was at home with all my belongings packed up in the car, ready to grab my dog and evacuate. I was watching the local news on TV, and I saw the fire marshal talking to the press, less than half a mile from me. He was showing reporters a map that had a line on it demarcating areas where many of the homeowners had already mitigated their properties. He said having that would be like a break; it would give the firefighters a shot at combating the blaze. And in the end—thanks to a number of factors including the mitigation work—our local area didn’t lose a single human life or structure in that wildfire.

Saving Homes, Money

The CSU extension program chipping services can save homeowners a couple thousand dollars, not to mention discounts on home insurance. We also recently pushed through a state tax credit for those who’ve paid for mitigation work on their properties. Of course, the bigger jobs can vary a lot in price. One of my clients needed help making their property safer before listing it, so I worked with them to price it out. One of the bids was $17,000 to remove pretty much every tree on the property. I was educated enough to know that wasn’t really what my clients needed. In the end, we settled on a service that ended up removing 19 trees (out of the 70 or so on the grounds) and cost less than $4,000. My clients sold the house shortly thereafter. The buyers commented that one thing they really liked about the property was that it had been recently mitigated for fire risk.

Invested in the Community

Now I’m working on getting more REALTORS® on board so they can educate their clients. I wrote a continuing education class to help them teach consumers across the Rockies to become more aware of fire prevention, which I’ve taught four times already, and we’re hoping to expand to other states. I’ve also spoken at some local new-member orientations about the importance of working fire prevention knowledge into the real estate transaction. The subject comes up in all my single-family home and ranch transactions in the mountains. It’s helpful to be able to look at a house and analyze where there may be risks or if there might be insurance issues down the road.

In the end, it’s all about showing that REALTORS® care. At one event we had for the program at our local association, the certified arborist on our team was taking questions from the media, and one reporter asked how consumers should choose a fire mitigation service professional. He cautioned against hiring fly-by-night companies and said it’s important to ensure they’re licensed and certified. And then he paused and said, “It’s kind of like hiring a REALTOR®. You want to make sure they know what they’re doing and that they abide by a code of ethics.” My REALTOR® colleagues said, “Bonnie, did you tell him to say that?” But no, I didn’t. I think he’d just hung around us at enough meetings to understand how important that sort of thing is in our industry, too. REALTORS® need more reasons to reach out and demonstrate that they’re invested in the community. We want to save people’s homes, our ecological system, animal wildlife—everything that makes up our communities.