Dara Miles stands on the edge of her property just west of Boulder, Colorado, overlooking forested foothills, scattered homes and burn scars from wildfires. She tells wildfire expert Andrew Notbohm about moving to this home four years ago. "Our sellers had told us about sitting in the hot tub and watching the embers from the Overland Fire twinkle like stars," she says, referring to a 2003 blaze. "It was kind of romantic."
A week after they closed on the sale, the Fourmile Canyon Fire ignited to the south, and the romance turned to ashes. The blaze quickly became Boulder County's costliest, causing about $217 million in damage and destroying 169 houses. "Then it was suddenly, 'Oh, what have I done?' " Miles remembers.
Miles has since joined the county's new Wildfire Partners program, which gives homeowners in high-risk wildfire zones the tools and support they need to protect their properties as thoroughly as possible, rewarding them with a certificate once they achieve their goals. Notbohm is a wildfire mitigation specialist for the program, which teaches property owners to fireproof their homes themselves rather than assuming that firefighters will come to the rescue.
Across the West, about 2 million homes like Miles' occupy the wildland-urban interface, or WUI, where public forests border private land. Colorado has about 300,000 such houses, around 9,000 in Boulder County alone. Defending the WUI accounts for a big chunk of annual federal firefighting costs, which have tripled to more than $3 billion since the 1990s, according to Headwaters Economics. Mitigation measures by homeowners could help reduce the federal price tag, as well as improve firefighters' safety. But just a fraction of the thousands of Western communities at risk have such programs in place, and few are as innovative and complete as Boulder's.
On this April afternoon, Notbohm is completing his assessment of Miles' property. Using a specialized iPad app, he will later upload to the program's advisory team. He gently urges Miles to get rid of her mountain mahogany, sprawling shrubs that give low flames an easy ladder into surrounding ponderosa pines. "On your next phone advising with Christina, ask her to send you the Firewise plant list," Notbohm says, referring to the program's lead "phone adviser." "Low cover, succulent-type vegetation is better than big stuff that can get out of control." Gutters must be kept debris-free, he continues, and the house should be surrounded by non-combustible material. Miles plans to replace loose gravel with stone pavers, so she can easily sweep away pine needles and leaves.