Onlookers watch as the Waldo Canyon Fire heads toward hundreds of homes on the west side of Colorado Springs on June 25. Widespread development in the wildland/urban interface across the country means millions of homes in the U.S. are potentially threatened by wildfire.(Photo: AP/Wide World)
By Fred Durso, Jr.
It is a hot weekday morning in July, and I’m surveying the aftermath of the recent Colorado Springs wildfire from the back seat of a red SUV. As we climb higher into the hills west of the city, the effects of the fire become more apparent. On one hillside, brown swaths of burnt grass envelop three earth-tone homes; directly behind the homes are acres of blackened yucca and Gambel oak trees that from a distance resemble thick stubble on a tanned face. Despite the dismal surroundings, the homes look unscathed. A little further on, we pass a school adorned with a large sign that reads “Thank U First Responders.”
With me is the driver, David Kosling, a photographer with the U.S. Department of Agriculture; Wendy Fulks, landscape conservation network director with The Nature Conservancy; and our unofficial tour guide, Andrew Notbohm, wildfire mitigation program coordinator with the Colorado Springs Fire Department (CSFD), who occupies the passenger seat and points out areas of possible interest. Our destination is the Mountain Shadows neighborhood, which took the full brunt of the fire.
We reach Majestic Drive and stop at a police checkpoint. Notbohm flashes his credentials and a big smile to the police officer monitoring traffic through Mountain Shadows. As we cruise slowly down Majestic, though, Notbohm’s grin fades. Fulks, with me in the back seat, goes quiet. I, too, have no words for the sights outside my window.
Along Majestic Drive, home after home has been completely erased, reduced to little more than a concrete foundation. Some fared better and are only missing their roofs. Tightly packed house lots are filled with charred heaps of barely recognizable items — satellite dishes, patio furniture, stoves, refrigerators. Burned-out cars line the street, their tires having melted off the wheels.
The devastation only hints at the intensity of the 16-day Waldo Canyon Fire that began on June 23. The fire initially spread from Waldo and Williams canyons, located west of Colorado Springs, and headed east toward the nearby Cedar Heights neighborhood. Firefighter efforts, a wind shift, and a strategic mitigation project prevented the fire from entering the neighborhood, but on the fourth day, aided by 65-mile-per-hour (105-kilometer-per-hour) winds, the fire ran down the northeast ridge of Queen’s Canyon, north of Cedar Heights, and slammed into Mountain Shadows. In total, the fire damaged or destroyed 392 homes, all of them located in Mountain Shadows. Two people died in the fire, which also burned more than 18,000 acres (7,284 hectares) and forced the evacuation of more than 32,000 people. The fire resulted in an estimated $350 million in property damage, making it the costliest fire in Colorado history. An additional $15.7 million was spent on firefighting efforts up until July 8, the date of containment, according to the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control. The cause is still under investigation.
We park the car and begin walking past the warzone-like destruction. Notbohm has spent years urging residents to safeguard their homes against fire, and now he’s coming face to face with his worst nightmare. Only an estimated five percent of Mountain Shadows residents participated in wildfire mitigation efforts assisted by the CSFD, according to the department. “I’m still processing it all,” Notbohm says. “I still look at these homes and I go, ‘Oh my gosh, this is catastrophic.’”
One resident, Diane Paton, is using a gardening tool to sift through the ash that was once her three-story home. Surprisingly chipper in a sleeveless gray top and blue plaid shorts, Paton, 49, points to what’s left of her more sizeable possessions, including a grand piano, reduced to a piece of burnt wood, and the charred remains of her Saab 9-5. “It was a sweet ride,” says Paton of the car. Her smaller finds — a diamond ring, pottery, assorted paper documents — fill boxes along the lot’s perimeter. I ask her what it was like to return to her home after the fire, and her sense of heartbreak and disbelief mirrors Notbohm’s. “I saw so many pictures [of the destruction], but to drive on this street and see it yourself…it was so hard to process,” she says. “When you see your grand piano — something so solid and big — destroyed, you can’t believe how hot this fire must have burned.”
Though Paton supported the neighborhood’s mitigation efforts, she admits it wasn’t a top priority at her home — the structure’s foundation, she says, was already surrounded by noncombustible materials like gravel and wasn’t near mulch or patches of trees that could have aided the fire’s spread. She says she was seriously considering replacing her cedar shake roof with a noncombustible or fire-resistive alternative when the fire hit. Of the 392 homes damaged or destroyed, the CSFD estimates that roughly a quarter of them had wood shingle roofs, which can make homes more susceptible to ignition and can encourage fire spread.
Mitigation is why Notbohm, Fulks, and the rest of us are traversing the neighborhoods of Colorado Springs. For three days in July, a dozen representatives of the organizations that make up the newly formed Fire Adapted Communities™ (FAC) coalition — among them NFPA, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS), and the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) — toured the city in the wake of the Waldo Canyon Fire to determine the impact of mitigation and preparedness tactics initiated by the Colorado Springs Fire Department (CSFD) more than a decade ago. Officially launched in June through a partnership between NFPA and the USFS, FAC aims to turn entire communities — residences, businesses, infrastructure and utilities, and natural areas and open spaces — into wildfire-resistant areas through a series of principles and practices developed by nine participating organizations. Participants in the July trip will release an investigation report on their Colorado Springs findings, along with related videos, later this year.
Molly Mowery, NFPA’s program manager for Fire Adapted Communities and International Outreach, says she hopes those findings will serve as lessons for the other 70,000 communities across the country that exist in wildfire-prone areas. “The Waldo Canyon Fire will provide us with takeaways we can share with other communities — what worked, what perhaps could have been approached differently, and what a long-term process it truly is to become fire-adapted,” she says.
By many measures, Colorado Springs epitomizes the idea of fire-adapted — 13 communities within the city are recognized by NFPA’s Firewise® Communities Program, and other neighborhoods have embraced mitigation; efforts are underway to safeguard the city’s utilities from fire hazards; and mitigation saved an entire neighborhood from the devastation that occurred in Mountain Shadows. “Our loss was bad, and we can’t forget about the two lives lost,” says CSFD Fire Marshal Brett Lacey, who sits on the committees for NFPA 1031, Professional Qualifications for Fire Inspector and Plan Examiner, and NFPA 1730, Organization and Deployment of Code Enforcement, Plan Review, Fire Investigation, and Public Education Operations to the Public. “But our community needs to be proud [that] we saved 82 percent of the homes that were legitimately threatened by this wildfire event.”
Getting Colorado Springs wildfire- ready, however, was a test in patience that spanned a decade. And as the Waldo Canyon Fire made evident, that effort is still very much a work in progress.
In a darkened room in the CSFD headquarters, nearly a dozen FAC representatives are getting a crash course on the city’s decade-long wildfire mitigation effort. A video screen in front of them displays a topographic map in a tapestry of green, yellow, orange, and red.
Christina Randall, wildfire mitigation administrator with the CSFD and one of only two full-time employees who handles the city’s mitigation work, explains to the group that the map identifies the more than 35,000 homes in Colorado Springs that are “at risk” to wildfire. The structures are color-coded based on physical characteristics and surrounding topography: dark green is low risk, red is extreme risk, and the other colors are somewhere in between. This data collection, which was officially released in 2002 and has been updated periodically since then, was the first in a series of steps taken by CSFD to inform the community that wildfires are a real threat.
At first, community response to this free information was mixed, Randall tells the group. “During initial community meetings [about the data], people would say, ‘I want my risk assessment to be password protected. I don’t want my neighbors spying on me,’” she says. “We said, ‘We want your neighbors to spy on you.’ They were taken aback, but the point is if you’re green and your neighbor is red, that influences your safety.”
An additional push for more serious wildfire preparation came in the form of the nearby Hayman Fire in 2002, which burned an estimated 138,000 acres (55,847 hectares) and damaged more than 130 homes just 35 miles (56 kilometers) from Colorado Springs, according to The Gazette, the city’s newspaper. For some residents, who could see and smell smoke, the Hayman Fire was a wake-up call that wildfire could pose a genuine threat to the community.
Colorado Springs’ landscape — a picturesque assortment of mesas, bluffs, mountains, and ridges — is also a cause for concern. Of the more than 415,000 residents in the city, according to 2010 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly a quarter reside in the designated wildland/urban interface (WUI) encompassing 29,000 acres (11,736 hectares), extending from the United States Air Force Academy in the city’s northern region to Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station and Fort Carson Army Installation in the south. The foothills west of Interstate 25, which slices through the city, contain the majority of the designated WUI. Further west is Pike National Forest, home of 14,000-foot (4,267-meter) Pikes Peak.
These physical features, coupled with the proximity of the Hayman Fire, helped to gradually shift homeowner attitude and behavior regarding wildfire preparation. For more than a decade, the CSFD Mitigation Branch has held educational outreach and informational sessions at 35 homeowners’ association meetings a year, maintained a robust fuels treatment program, and coordinated the development of a community-wide protection plan. It has also pushed, with assistance from local officials, for the establishment of a roofing ordinance that has led to the replacement of 55,000 cedar shake roofs with fire-resistant roofs in the past six years, and has conducted free, on-site consultations with homeowners on how to protect their properties with principles established by NFPA’s Firewise Communities Program. If enough residents in a neighborhood take part in mitigation efforts, the CSFD will pick up and dispose of the debris for free.
“We have a very small staff and a very small budget,” Randall says. “Where the work comes from are the residents. Initially, getting that snowball pushed off the top of the hill was a little rough. Now that it’s going, we can’t even keep up with the demand.”
“We could have saved so much time developing the [FAC] program if we had just called you first,” says Pam Leschak, the no-nonsense FAC program manager, and a few people in the room laugh. Leschak is a 10-year veteran of the USFS who has spent the past four years developing FAC strategies and ways to communicate them on a large scale. She likes to say that “an ounce of mitigation is worth millions of dollars in cure,” and the next item on the day’s agenda is to see what that ounce of mitigation actually looks like.
The FAC group carpools to a ridge overlooking a neighborhood called Cedar Heights, which offers a stark contrast to Mountain Shadows, located four miles to the north. Instead of tightly packed homes nestled on an array of streets, Cedar Heights residences dot the hillside, tucked into dense stands of Ponderosa pine and Gambel oak. There is no burnt landscape apparent during the drive up. No homes in Cedar Heights were lost to the Waldo Canyon Fire.
A bit higher up the ridge, CSFD’s Notbohm stands in a dirt road free of vegetation, called a dozer line, created during the Waldo Canyon Fire. The line was intended to stop the blaze from entering Cedar Heights, which peeks out from the brush below us. Notbohm sports wraparound sunglasses and a dark blue baseball cap. Prior to joining the department’s mitigation team more than four years ago, the Wisconsin native worked for a fuels management contractor that removed brush, trimmed trees, and created defensible space around homes. He has assisted with mitigation in Cedar Heights for the past eight years, and it seems as if the neighborhood is his unofficial second home. “If you look at the amount of material we’ve removed from a community like Cedar Heights, it’s incredible,” he tells the FAC group. “But as you drive up to Cedar Heights, there’s still a ton of work to do.”
He wants to show us something else, and leads us on a quick hike further up the ridge, until we reach Solitude Park, about a half-mile above Cedar Heights. We walk through the park, a 300-acre (121-hectare) parcel that buffers Cedar Heights from the Pike-San Isabel National Forests, and come to a large section, nearly 100 acres (40.5 hectares), that has been thinned of dead scrub oak and other fuels, a project that began in 2008. Moving east out of Williams and Waldo canyons, the fire dramatically fed off the nearby forest before entering the northwest corner of Solitude Park. When it encountered the thinned section, though, says Notbohm, the fire simply ran out of fuel; a slurry drop from a tanker aircraft and a fortunate wind shift also helped keep the fire out of Cedar Heights. “I think we had a really good plan,” he says.
Solitude Park is an example of the fuels mitigation work overseen by Notbohm. With a team of six seasonal crewmembers and contractors, the CSFD treats up to 1,000 acres (405 hectares) a year, paid for with approximately $325,000 acquired mostly through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program. We soon see these dollars in action when we bump into a three-person crew using a chipper to grind cleared trees into wood chips. “We’ve been waiting for science to prove that what we’re doing is working,” says crewmember Jeremy Taylor, who wears a yellow hardhat and large sunglasses. The fuels mitigation work in Solitude Park, he says, “proved our point.”
Close to home
Steve Quarles is crawling around a large brown house in Cedar Heights, one of 35 homes in Cedar Heights and Mountain Shadows that are being examined by IBHS. The organization’s mission is to conduct research that strengthens homes, businesses, and communities against natural disasters, and Quarles, a senior scientist with IBHS, is here to evaluate the fire safety of homes in the area. He wears khaki shorts and a sky-blue T-shirt, and as he moves along the base of the house he feels for crevices behind the siding, which is noncombustible fiber cement.
The mulch scattered below the siding, however, is combustible, and Quarles shares his observations with Keith Worley, a Firewise® regional advisor for Colorado and six other states, who records the information on an evaluation form. “Because of the mulch, a fire can get behind the siding and burn,” says Worley, who’s wearing a green cap that is unable to shield his thick, white beard from the sun. “That’s a weak point. Instead of mulch, I’d like to see dirt, rock, or some sort of noncombustible material.” Combustible mulches and plants, according to Firewise principles, should be at least five feet (1.5 meters) from a home.
Even with its noncombustible siding and roof, it’s easy to see why this structure, situated on a foothill surrounded by forest, is at high risk in the event of wildfire. Homeowners, however, have attempted to reduce this risk, and their efforts in Cedar Heights and a dozen other communities in Colorado Springs have been recognized by NFPA through its Firewise Communities/USA® Program, a vital component of the FAC initiative.
The back of the house, where gravel replaces the combustible mulch, fares better. “If embers get into stone, no big deal,” says Worley. The well-hydrated shrubs, as well as the metal patio furniture, also get his approval. But the acres of vegetation that come to within a few yards of the home’s backyard give him pause. “We have significant areas of dead or dying oak,” he says. “The fire risk is high.”
Encouraging residents to take ownership of the potential fire hazards around their property was the reason CSFD enacted what it calls its FireWise Program a decade ago, with principles established by NFPA’s program. Cathy Prudhomme, CSFD’s former FireWise program coordinator and now NFPA’s associate project manager for Wildland Fire Youth Education, recalls the initial meeting about the program with Cedar Heights homeowners inside a church basement. “There were some homeowners who said, ‘We want you to train us to be firefighters. We want to put the fire out ourselves,’” she says. “That was what they thought their role should be — not mitigation, not reducing the risks. It’s been a mentality shift.”
A decade later, a handful of Colorado Springs residents is helping spread the mitigation message. Sandy Lewis, who has lived in Cedar Heights for 14 years, puts together a monthly newsletter for his neighborhood that includes a section on wildfire mitigation. A welcome packet for newcomers includes information on contacting the CSFD for a free home assessment. Cedar Heights also hosts an annual Safety and Security Information Day that addresses mitigation.
Lewis estimates that 60 percent of Cedar Heights residents tidy up their property on a regular basis, but adds that there will always be naysayers. “Trying to get people to do this for the long term is a challenge,” he says. “There are those that still equate mitigation with clear-cutting, or they say, ‘I like my privacy.’ But there are enough people in this community who’ve bought into it.”
Another challenging task was the mitigation in Solitude Park. The community received the 300-acre (121-hectare) parcel following a settlement agreement in 2000, and it is now protected through a conservation easement with a local land trust, according to resident Dick Standaert, who took the lead in initiating the mitigation. To the land trust’s trustees, he says, “setting a piece of land aside in perpetuity meant that you didn’t touch it.” With help from the CSFD, though, he initiated what he describes as a “mitigation demo” on a three-acre (one-hectare) section of the park. The demonstration was a success, Standaert says—it proved that mitigation can be effective without drastically altering landscapes — and paved the way for a much larger fuels mitigation project in the park.
Solitude Park is also an example of how FAC principles aim to protect not just residences but all aspects of a community, including green space and utilities. Fulks of The Nature Conservancy is an advocate for the U.S. Fire Learning Network, a joint project of TNC and other organizations, and helps communities consider projects that depend on what she calls “good fire” to restore natural habitats. Her hope is that the Colorado Springs fact-finding project won’t lose sight of fire’s importance, particularly in these settings. “We’re interested in the built environment, but I believe FAC principles also extend beyond communities,” she says, while snapping photos in Solitude Park. “If we had healthier forests, the wildfires we have would be more benign.”
Eric Howell, watershed and forest management specialist with Colorado Springs Utilities, says that utilities have a key role to play, too. “Within the last few years, we’ve developed a real good partnership with the CSFD,” he says. “We knew mitigation was something we needed to address.” He and his team are conducting assessments of the nearly 30 tank sites and pump stations around Colorado Springs, and he says the utility plans to move forward on projects to mitigate fire hazards.
Lewis credits such progress to the community’s multi-faceted rapport with the CSFD but believes that mitigation only goes so far. “I honestly believe that there is no amount of mitigation that would have helped Mountain Shadows, or us, if the [wind shifted the fire] in our direction,” he says. [See “In Harm’s Way,” page 63.] “But what you can do is prepare the best you possibly can.”
Preparation seems to be on the minds of many residents since the Waldo Canyon Fire; Notbohm says the volume of calls he’s been receiving has been “tremendous.” But Prudhomme tempers that with an observation from her own experience. “Following the Hayman Fire, the phones at the fire department rang off the hook. The next year, we had to beat the bushes to find people interested in mitigation,” she says, adding that studies show that this top-of-mind awareness lasts three to 12 months before people revert to their old ways. “It fades that quickly,” she says.
Rebirth and rebuilding
In Solitude Park, new green scrub oaks and clusters of flowering plants are already sprouting from the burnt ground, a sign of nature’s resiliency. The built environment, say the people who call Colorado Springs home, will undergo a similar rebirth. Discussions are underway about creating emergency ordinances that will address fire-resistant roofing and building designs for new construction.
FAC members, determined to make sure that the Waldo Canyon Fire doesn’t become just another historical footnote, say that their report on the fire will address in detail the extent of mitigation in Colorado Springs before the fire, the effect it had on the damage, and how the various mitigation efforts mesh with the overall FAC initiative. They hope others can benefit from what occurred here.
While CSFD’s Notbohm is happy to help spread the word, it doesn’t alter the fact that it was his town that was hit, or that his town has become the latest example of our ongoing struggle with the wildland/urban interface. As we gaze at a pile of rubble that was once a Mountain Shadows home topped by a cedar shake roof, I ask him if sites like this make him feel helpless against fire. “I’m doing my job if I’m telling the story. You can take action or not, but if residents understand the threat and potential, I’m doing my job,” he says. He moves toward a wooden swing-set that appears mostly undamaged, except for its green plastic slide, which has partially melted.
“Maybe we didn’t get to everyone. Maybe everyone didn’t want to listen. But I feel good that I reached out to everyone who wanted to listen.”
Richard and Francine Hansen have lived in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood of Colorado Springs for a decade, and they take pride in the work they’ve done to protect their community from wildfire. They’ve safeguarded their own home, and they have encouraged neighbors to do the same. The neighborhood newsletter frequently included mitigation information from Richard, who urged residents to take fire risks seriously.
While the number of wildland fires this year is below the 10-year average, the number of acres burned by mid August is 6.8 million acres (2.8 million hectares), approximately 1.3 million (526,091 hectares) above the average. These figures, from the National Interagency Fire Center, coupled with this summer’s extreme drought conditions, exemplify growing threats for residents living in the wildland/urban interface (WUI).
How communities are using codes and standards to address these concerns is the focus of a new report, Addressing Community Wildfire Risk: A Review of Regulatory and Planning Tools, commissioned by the Fire Protection Research Foundation. The study analyzed 40 communities and their WUI regulatory tools, including building, fire, and land use codes, as well as local ordinances. Key findings include:
The report also lists a handful of recommendations addressing these issues. For the full report, visit nfpa.org/foundation.
— Fred Durso, Jr.
In this Section:
|Lessons of Comayagua
In the aftermath of a prison fire in Honduras that killed 361 people, Journal looks at how NFPA codes can improve fire safety in prisons and many other occupancies throughout Latin America.
|After Waldo Canyon
The costliest wildfire in Colorado history was a serious test of local mitigation and preparedness efforts. How effective was the mitigation, and how can it be improved?
|Fire Loss in the United States During 2011
Last year, U.S. fire departments responded to nearly 1.4 million fires, 4.4 percent more than the year before.
|Catastrophic Multiple-Death Fires in 2011
Last year, 23 catastrophic multiple-death fires resulted in 114 fire deaths, including 16 children under age six. An unusually high proportion of fires began with explosions.