No Easy Answers
NFPA Journal®, September/October 2012
In June, I co-hosted a study tour with the U.S. Forest Service International Programs. We were sharing U.S. prevention and mitigation wildfire efforts with a group of Russian delegates that included fire prevention specialists, trainers, the director of a new national park, and policy advisors. Their timing was uncanny. The group landed in Denver on Sunday, June 24, the same day the Waldo Canyon Fire was beginning to cause significant consternation for Colorado Springs and surrounding communities. The High Park Fire, west of Fort Collins, had already burned for weeks, and the state was experiencing record temperatures with no rain in sight.
The Waldo Canyon Fire roared to life each morning as the humidity dropped and temperatures soared. Our site visits with the Russian delegates included long detours to avoid road closures as we skirted around the fire. On Tuesday evening, June 26, strong winds enabled the fire to make the unusual move of heading down slope into Colorado Springs’ subdivisions. The result was devastating: nearly 400 homes damaged or destroyed and two residents dead.
As smoke blanketed the Front Range, the Russians posed a tough question: “Why does the U.S. continue to lose so many homes in spite of all of its good mitigation efforts?”
I hesitated before answering. I have heard this question raised repeatedly in the news since the start of this latest rash of western fires. Many conclusions focus on climate change and warming trends throughout the West, coupled with poor forest health following years of fire suppression. Others focus on the ever-increasing number of homes and businesses in the wildland/urban interface. What I ended up telling them was, despite these increasing risk factors, there are many positive success stories from local, state, and federal agencies around the country that showcase when mitigation works.
Although formal post-fire assessments will probably be underway in Colorado Springs for months, a few bright spots have already emerged. For years, the city has required mitigation for homes deemed at risk of wildfire based on a hazard assessment. Mitigation includes defensible space, Class A roofing, and use of other building materials that reduce the risk of a home being ignited by embers. Shortly after the Waldo Canyon Fire, Colorado Springs Fire Chief Rich Brown told a local newspaper that 81 percent of the homes threatened in the Mountain Shadows subdivision were saved. In other words, the losses could have been far greater than the 340 homes lost in that subdivision alone. Andrew Notbohm, a wildfire mitigation program coordinator for the Colorado Springs Fire Department, told The Denver Post that another neighborhood, Cedar Heights, had mitigation work in place “that helped firefighters gain an upper hand” on the fire.
It’s too soon to say exactly what worked, what didn’t, and why. But hearing that mitigation did help is a message I hear across the country when I talk to wildland firefighters and mitigation specialists. In the meantime, I’ll be awaiting the final report on the Waldo Canyon Fire — and thinking about how to craft a shorter answer for my Russian colleagues.
Molly Mowery is program manager for Fire Adapted Communities and International Outreach.