Saws and Slaws: Award-winning work that builds community

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CB Bassity, Peak to Peak. Sawzin-who?

Saws and Slaws—it’s short for chainsaws and coleslaws, the defining features of a Saws and Slaws event. Once a month, if the weather cooperates, maybe twenty to forty volunteers gather on an appointed morning with chainsaws, work gloves, pickups, and other tools to drop trees and remove the resulting wood and slash in order to render some portion of local landscape, and the homes thereon, less likely to burn when threatened by wildland fire.

In 2011, Cesar Gellido of Coal Creek Canyon, faced with the overgrown forest and accumulated fuel load that threatens his community (and virtually all forest land in this area and throughout the mountain west) gathered some neighbors and organized a four-hour work party on Brook Road, followed by a potluck dinner. Saws and Slaws has been growing ever since.

As Gellido says, “It’s like an Amish barn-raising, but without the Amish and without the barn.” No Amish maybe, but the remarkable accomplishment and camaraderie remain, and the events are often compared to a block party.

According to Dallas Masters, who hosted one of the early events in Coal Creek Canyon, “Mitigating our property was easy, from the consultation with forest experts to the actual cutting and cleaning of the forest with a great group of volunteers. What would have taken a long time and a lot of hard work for one family was accomplished in a few hours by friends and neighbors pitching in to help.”

In 2012, Saws and Slaws spread to Nederland when Boulder County Outreach Forester Ryan Ludlow told the town’s Parks, Recreation and Open Space Advisory Board (PROSAB) about the successful efforts of the Coal Creek Canyon folks. Gellido addressed the next PROSAB meeting, and his enthusiasm was contagious.

In June 2012, Nederland town trustee Randy Lee and Alan Brewer and Kris Hess of PROSAB organized the first Saws and Slaws event in Nederland. Cesar Gellido and others from Coal Creek Canyon came over to help, resulting in five chainsaws, 20 volunteers (many hands are needed besides sawyers), one Bobcat, one ATV, and one limbing saw working to vastly improve two properties.

Alan Brewer says, “I got involved in Saws and Slaws because I thought it was a good approach to promote fire mitigation and to fight pine beetle infestation at the neighborhood level.  What I didn’t appreciate at the time was the importance of the ‘Slaws,’ the community-building aspect of this effort,” which he says has been “extremely rewarding.”

Let no one imagine that cutting trees or hauling slash (limbs and branches) and large wood is anything but hard work. But people repeatedly comment on how much they enjoy themselves doing it. Working side by side with mountain neighbors—there’s a party atmosphere that somehow lightens the effort.

Nederland resident Lynn James needed fire mitigation work on her property, but felt the cost of hiring the work would be high. She says, “I couldn’t help with the ‘Saws,’ but I could help with the ‘Slaws’ food part. A huge benefit is that I got to meet so many of my neighbors who I might never have met otherwise. Any time Saws and Slaws wants to use my deck for the ‘Slaws’ BBQ after mitigating another property in my area they are welcome here with open arms.” She also mentions that her State Farm insurance agent “is thrilled with the Saws and Slaws grass root movement in our mountains.”

Kathy and Kevin Wolfskill of Nederland feel likewise: “What a gift Saws and Slaws was for our three-acre property. Ryan Ludlow of Wildfire Partners marked about 250 trees, and the time and expense would have been prohibitive if we’d have had to take care of removing them ourselves. Instead we had a small army of caring and helpful neighbors pitch in, followed by a delightful social potluck to top off the morning. The curbside chipping program finished the job, also free of charge, by cleaning up all the slash piles.”

With coaching from Gellido and Boulder County’s Ryan Ludlow, Saws and Slaws moved into the Sugarloaf community, which held its first event on Sunday, July 14, 2013, cleaning up the adjacent properties of Susan Hofer and Dan Conser at the corner of Canyon View and Kelly Roads.
Once again Gellido and several of his Coal Creek veteran Saws folk showed up, and in four hours about 20 people managed to create defensible space around two homes, and to convert a gulch that was loaded with fuel—a “chimney” in firefighters’ terms—into a site where a running fire would likely run short of fuel.

And the properties look great too. It should be noted that effective fire mitigation does not mean anything like clear-cutting, but it mimics nature’s design for the coniferous forests of the region. Historically, fire has always swept through, probably lightning-sparked, probably every 20 to 30 years on average. Fire cleaned up the forest floor of fallen limbs, pine litter and such, and thinned the forest of some trees, but mostly spared the larger Ponderosa Pines which are fire-adapted.

However, in the last hundred years or so of Smoky the Bear’s reign, the woods have become overgrown. This tremendous growth and the accumulated ground fuels make for wildly destructive fires, rather than the relatively “cool” fires that nature once employed for cleanup.

Following the flood of September 2013, Saws and Slaws volunteers from all three communities mobilized to help clean up an area along the creek in Fourmile Canyon. Resident Robert Beebe thanked the group, saying, “Patti and I can’t tell you how much we appreciate your coming all this way to help us out. Everything you and your crew did was either beyond my abilities as a cutter, or was much easier with your equipment (a winch!), or the kind of thing that required a raft of folks who know their way around mountains and chainsaws.” The work was followed by a meal on the Beebes’ deck, making the day rewarding and enjoyable as always.
Later, in November 2013, Saws and Slaws teamed up with the United Way and other volunteers to work clean-up along the St. Vrain Creek in the Raymond and Riverside communities. This was challenging work, with sawyers cutting trees in the active creek, as well as on the stream side.  A large group shared a meal afterward, just a stone’s throw from a house hanging partially in the creek. The presence of volunteers helping to deal with the flood’s aftermath clearly buoyed the spirits of local residents.

While Saws and Slaws is all about boots on the ground and volunteer spirit, much behind the scenes prep work is required before anyone fires up a saw. A core group of people in each community spearheads the effort. Landowners must decide to act; trees must be selected and marked for cutting by a forester following “defensible space” guidelines; slash-chipping must be arranged along with its funding. (Running a commercial-size wood chipper is not cheap, nor is it for weekend warriors. This is one component where professionals must be involved.)

How much work can volunteers accomplish in four hours? What can be done safely, and what should be left to professionals? Planning and scheduling these events does not follow from a 10-minute phone call. Yet time after time committed volunteers make it happen.

Every Saws and Slaws project does valuable work, but certain ones stand out. In Nederland, the Summer Road project of August 2014—one of the largest and probably the most complex event, requiring the collaboration of numerous stakeholders—put to work a huge group of folks from Nederland, Sugarloaf, and Coal Creek Canyon, and capped two years of planning and organizing by nearby resident Marc McClish.

In Sugarloaf, during two successive events in September and October 2014, volunteers tackled an undeveloped tract belonging to the Boulder Valley School District that had concerned the neighborhood for some time, due to its being a steep, severely overgrown and fuel-laden gulch in the heart of the Kelly Road area of Tall Timbers. In Coal Creek Canyon, over 50 volunteers showed up to work the Blue Mountain project.

Beyond the worksite events, some additions have enhanced Saws and Slaws. Sawyer training has enabled people—men and women both—to learn to operate a chainsaw safely and to improve their skills in the woods. Like a table-saw or a kitchen knife, a chainsaw is a marvelous tool, but unforgiving of errors. And for two years now there has been a Saws and Slaws appreciation dinner held at the Nederland Community Center, in January when such fellowship is welcome. Another thing is the firewood produced in Coal Creek Canyon that has been finding its way to people in need.

From the start, Boulder County has been cheering for Saws and Slaws, and not just from the sidelines. Besides educating residents on fire mitigation, Ryan Ludlow is often in the field advising landowners and marking trees for the events. The county Land Use Department’s chipping grant funding helps to advance the work.

And Saws and Slaws is a ready complement to the county’s Wildfire Partners program.  In 2014 Senior Planner Jim Webster of the Land Use Department nominated Saws and Slaws for a wildfire mitigation award. At the March 25, 2015, conference of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) in Reno, Nevada, Gellido accepted the Wildfire Mitigation Innovation Award from the IAFC, the National Fire Protection Association, the National Association of State Foresters, and the National Forest Service. This national recognition of the program means that interest is building in other parts of the country.

Since 2011, when Cesar Gellido was inspired to do something new in the world, hundreds of volunteers have transformed countless acres of extremely fire-prone forest into land where fire will lose its way. The work continues.