Author(s): Lucian Deaton. Published on January 4, 2016.

Lesson Unlearned?

In a push to rebuild following a wildfire, a community may miss
the big takeaways.

THIS FALL, EL PASO COUNTY IN COLORADO was embroiled in a debate over how to rebuild following a wildfire. The discussion focused on a central question: Should residential fire safety requirements be relaxed to encourage rebuilding?

The county, which encompasses Colorado Springs, south of Denver, endured the Black Forest Fire in June of 2013. The fire destroyed 488 homes as burning wind-driven embers ignited structures on the edge of residential communities and transformed neighborhoods into raging conflagrations. The focus over the past two years has been on rebuilding, but in recent months a local newspaper, The Gazette, ran a series of articles finding fault in the response by county commissioners, reporting that they both tabled wildfire code adoption and relaxed existing structural fire code requirements following the Black Forest Fire.

According to media accounts, commissioners responded that they relaxed requirements on residential sprinklers to help homeowners better afford rebuilding, and cited respect of property rights in their defense of not adopting new wildland/urban interface (WUI) development codes advocated by fire service agencies. By comparison, other Colorado counties have recently adopted WUI fire codes in the wake of fire events and are good examples of wildfire resiliency. More meetings on the matter in El Paso County were set for the end of 2015.

Fires used to teach us lessons. Major urban fires of the past would enter our lexicon with historic titles like “the great fire of…” and produce changes in how structures were built to face the fire threat. The 1870s through the 1920s saw urban conflagrations and industrial fires around the country erase old building models and outmoded thinking about fire safety. From those ashes rose cities and industries transformed in their approach to fire risk, as well as the adoption of life safety standards that were the forbears of the resilient urban structural landscape we see today.

A century later, we again live in a period that provides us teachable moments about the new threat of fire. In many cases, though, we are missing the opportunity to learn.

In the WUI, where homes are near, or in, fire-prone landscapes and can be exposed to burning embers, wildfire moves from “wild” to urban areas through the ignition of unprepared structures. If not stopped through mitigation, a home-to-home conflagration can result, like the one that devastated parts of Colorado Springs. While fire agencies performed valiantly, fire response is not consistent in the WUI, and challenges faced by local officials further complicate actions for long-term safety.

It is important to acknowledge the political dilemma underlying these problems. In a reality of two-year election cycles, quarterly fundraising goals, and tightening local budgets, the sudden loss of 488 homes and the removal of $84 million in residential property taxes poses a significant challenge to El Paso County’s commissioners.

The tension between long-term progressive change and the immediate need to make communities and budgets whole again is real. At the same time, though, we cannot afford to miss critical lessons that can help us shape a workable WUI landscape. To meet the WUI threat, we must share a collective conviction to support comprehensive rebuilding plans that reflect those lessons and balance redevelopment with the assurance of a resilient WUI future.

LUCIAN DEATON manages the Firewise Communities and Fire Adapted Communities Programs in NFPA's Wildland Fire Operations Division. Top Photograph: Shutterstock.