Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on January 2, 2018.

Miles Apart, Worlds Away

How the post-fire stories of Colorado Springs and El Paso County illustrate the political challenges of enacting community wildfire mitigation measures


FEW PEOPLE UNDERSTAND the politics of wildfire mitigation measures better than Colorado Springs Fire Marshal Brett Lacey.

In 2012, the Waldo Canyon Fire came barreling down a mountain ridge into Mountain Shadows, a neighborhood of Colorado Springs. The community was unprepared for a direct hit by wildfire, which sparked an urban conflagration similar to what occurred in October in Santa Rosa, California, where more than 3,000 homes burned. In Mountain Shadows, the fire decimated 344 homes in about five hours—a rate of more than a home a minute—and damaged about 100 more. At the time, it was the most destructive fire in state history.

Lacey, who has been the fire marshal for nearly two decades and a member of the fire service even longer, described Mountain Shadows as a community with a lot of fire vulnerabilities back in 2012. Many of the homes had wood siding and wood shake shingles. The area was thickly settled with juniper trees—“gasoline on a stick,” as Lacey’s staff calls them—and many homes had mulched perimeters. Embers had no shortage of opportunities to spark ignitions.

“We knew all of this and had a good idea of what would happen if a fire hit that area,” Lacey said in an interview. “But in Colorado Springs, we have large population that is suspicious of government and they do not like regulation. As the fire marshal I have had to wait for opportunistic moments where the words I speak can be validated by what the public can see, feel, and touch.”

As such, enacting fire code changes to make Mountain Shadows and other communities safer was slow and incremental, proceeding as politics and public opinion allowed. The city passed its first wildfire building codes in 1993, which included minimal requirements restricting overgrowth around homes. In 2002, after the Hayman Fire burned 133 homes just 25 miles to the city’s northwest, Colorado Springs’ fire advocates mustered enough support to pass an ordinance requiring all new homes to have Class A roofs, which are fire resistant and typically metal. Homes built before 2002 weren’t required to make the change unless more than 25 percent of a roof was being replaced.

Lacey knew more still needed to be done, and his office drafted a substantially more comprehensive ordinance filled with tougher rules for homes built along the city’s fire-prone hillsides, including restrictions on building materials, vegetation, and landscaping. After the Waldo Canyon Fire struck, the new document came off the shelf.

Within two weeks of the fire, Lacey met with a local building association whose support he knew was essential to enact a new wildfire ordinance. From past battles, Lacey knew cost concerns could easily derail the effort, so he asked the association to compile multiple cost estimates for new homes of various sizes, with and without ignition- resistant materials. The estimates he received showed that adopting the fire-resistant measures added only about $2,000-$5,000 to the cost of the average home.

“I think having them provide those cost numbers really allayed a lot of concerns,” he said.

Next, Lacey and his staff launched a public campaign to talk about the fire, why homes burned, and what measures could be taken to prevent similarly catastrophic fire events from happening again. After six months of meetings and public outreach, the ordinance passed.

Today, nearly all of the homes in Mountain Shadows have been rebuilt with fire-resistant materials and landscaping. Cost and general opposition to the idea of additional regulation were the main points of oppostion, but Lacey said that five years later the ordinance has won widespread acceptance.

“I think they are very comfortable with it,” he said. “You will never get everybody to agree—the best you can expect is for people to begrudgingly go along. But they don’t have to be happy about it. They just have to do it.”

SUCCESS WITH WILDFIRE policy is only jurisdiction deep—everything can change dramatically when you cross a border. Nowhere is that contrast more clear than between Colorado Springs and its neighboring jurisdiction, El Paso County.

A year after the Waldo Canyon Fire, the Black Forest Fire replaced it as the state’s most destructive, striking the county's rural unincorporated areas just 20 miles northeast of Colorado Springs. Although roughly 500 homes were destroyed in the blaze, little has been done since to address ongoing wildfire concerns. Shortly after the fire, in an effort to speed recovery, the El Paso County commissioners opted to eliminate a sprinkler requirement for larger homes, a measure it had approved in 2006. At present, individual homes are not subject to restrictions on how or where they can be built, and according to The Colorado Springs Gazette, the county master plans for development make no mention of wildfire.

A primary reason for the different approaches between the county and the county’s largest city are the differences in resources, demographics, and governmental structure. Unlike Colorado Springs, the county has no universal fire code and is comprised of more than 26 fire districts, which stretch from the western foothills to eastern plains. Having so many political entities and competing interests makes a universal fire code difficult to implement, County Commissioner Dennis Hisey told The Gazette in 2015.

"We did have that discussion about a county-wide fire code (after the Black Forest Fire)…but we just finally determined that we weren't going to get there,” he said. “There were too many differences—it was a one-size-doesn't-fit-all."

Marla Novack, the director of Governmental Affairs at the Housing & Building Association of Colorado Springs, attended those discussions in the aftermath of the fire. She said that fire districts in the county pushed for an ordinance similar to what Colorado Springs passed, but as a blanket mandate across the county, not just in the hillside areas as the city had done. Ultimately, the effort failed, she said, because it was seen as overreaching and wasn’t supported by residents.

“Residents in the county are different than the residents in the city of Colorado Springs,” Novack said. “They move out here because they want to live in the woods, and they don’t want to be told what to do. They want to be left alone.”

According to The Gazette, when it comes to wildfire, regulating and monitoring development in El Paso County is a task that county government shares with more than two-dozen fire districts, with neither ideal for the role. “It's not the county's role to be the firefighter or the technical expert, but we've got 20-plus volunteer fire departments…but is it really their role?" asked Mark Gebhart, the deputy director of the El Paso County Development Services Department, in a Gazette article. "There's not really an overriding person or entity over those fire districts. They are their own little governments, and many of them have their own sets of fire departments or district regulations that are not zoning-code tied."

Lacey said that, even with his decades of experience and a professional staff behind him, passing the ordinance in Colorado Springs required a massive effort. He sympathizes with smaller volunteer departments with fewer resources. “The public process is grueling and intensive—it’s not as easy as scheduling a meeting at a school on a Thursday night for two hours,” he said. “It took us six months to get the ordinance passed. You have to schedule these meetings around the clock, and many people are not listening real well at that point.”

Lacey emphasizes that the success in Colorado Springs doesn’t necessarily serve as a template for other communities. “The message must be tailored specifically to your community,” he said. “You have different demographics, education levels, fear factors, motivation levels. You can’t take a boilerplate process and go somewhere else with it. If we’d tried to do this somewhere else, we’d have been run out of town.”

JESSE ROMAN is associate editor for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Getty Images