Local Grand County fire professional Schelly Olson wins national wildfire mitigation award
Call it fate, bad luck or being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but when the East Troublesome Fire tore across northern Grand County in 2020, Schelly Olson’s Grand Lake house went up in flames with it.
When her home was destroyed, Olson had been the assistant chief of administration and community risk reduction with Grand Fire Protection District since 2014. She’d also been a public information officer on many wildfires nationwide, including the Williams Fork Fire in August 2020. When the East Troublesome Fire started, Olson was taking some much-needed time off but still managed to assist with information virtually. But it wasn’t the loss of her own home that provoked her to dive headlong into work that helps all Grand County residents better prepare for wildfire or other devastating emergencies. She’d already been doing that for a while.
In 2011, she was working for Grand Fire Protection District in administration and was the public information officer for the district. She was also educating homeowners using Firewise Building and Landscape Principles and the International Association of Fire Chiefs’ “Ready, Set, Go! Wildland Fire Action Guide” to help Grand County residents prepare for wildfire.
Through her work on things such as customizing the Ready, Set, Go! program for locals, Olson formed the Grand County Wildfire Council in 2013, and it officially became a 501(c)(3) in 2015. It was originally housed at Grand Fire, but after the GCWC received its second BLM Community Assistance grant, Olson was able to complete one of her missions: “to broaden the scope of the GCWC so it could help everyone in the whole county,” she said, and “to establish crucial partnerships across local, regional, state and federal boundaries.”
For her work in creating the council — and helping residents in multiple ways through it — Olson was named a Wildfire Mitigation Awardee, given by the National Association of State Foresters, the International Association of Fire Cheifs, the National Fire Protection Agency and the USDA Forest Service.
The award recognizes individuals’ exemplary commitment to and innovation in community wildfire risk reduction.
“Schelly’s biggest strength is her ability to simplify the issues and motivate others to take action on their part of the problem,” Grand Fire Protection District No. 1 Fire Chief Brad White said. “She is great at organizing complex projects and ensuring they come to conclusion, or at least to the next step. Schelly seldom accepts ‘no’ or ‘we can’t’ as a final answer and pushes through to find the workarounds and solutions to problems.“
Of Olson’s leadership within Grand County Wildfire Council, he said, “Schelly guides a great team of volunteers that staff the GCWC board and sub committees that have spent thousands of hours working on community education, planning, funding and fuels reduction projects over the few short years the Wildfire Council has been around.”
White added, “We’ve already seen positive impacts on countless small fires, but even as we look at fires like Silver Creek, the Golf Course Fire and the East Troublesome, hundreds of homes have been saved due to the actions taken as a result of Grand County Wildfire Council’s work. It’s been an enormous undertaking that requires constant chipping away at it.”
Chipping — in this case, wood — is an element of the GCWC’s work. In fire mitigation efforts in Grand County, the council has held 26 community chipping events, with more than 1,000 participants, where property owners can haul fuels like trees, branches, small-diameter logs and brush to be chipped and disposed. Exact locations are still to be determined for 2022, but the dates are set: June 4 near Hot Sulphur Springs, June 25 in Grand Lake, July 9 in Fraser/Winter Park, July 30 in Grand Lake and Aug. 20 in Granby.
With Western wildfires becoming more frequent and catastrophic, Olson shows no sign of stopping. She recently retired from Grand Fire to pursue a full-time position with the Wildfire Council. She would have to give up her seat on the board as the current chairperson but told the Sky-Hi News, “I met with the GCWC board today, and since the application period for the executive director job posting expired in December with zero applicants, I asked them if I could apply for the position to continue building a fire-adapted Grand County: increasing our resiliency and reducing our wildfire risk. They said ‘yes!’”
Olson is looking forward to serving the GCWC and other state and national organizations to address the wildfire crisis and prevent loss of life and homes to wildland fires.
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