A new wildfire protection approach in Colorado

Homeowners take on the costs of fire mitigation — with lots of help.

  • Homeowner Peter Braam, right, and Boulder County wildfire mitigation specialist Ryan Ludlow discuss steps Braam has taken to protect his home in Boulder Canyon from wildfire.

    Christi Turner
  • Homeowner Peter Braam, left, and Boulder County wildfire mitigation specialist Ryan Ludlow discuss steps Braam has taken to protect his home in Boulder Canyon from wildfire.

    Christi Turner
 

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.

The assessment process began with an in-depth phone interview, in which Miles was asked about her personal values and concerns. She'll continue to receive long-term phone advising as she works through the report's recommendations – a crucial layer of support for all participants.

A program as sophisticated as this requires significant resources, however. Now in its first year,  Wildfire Partners is funded by a $980,000 state grant, with matching county funds. That pays for one full-time staffer and seven contract assessors. There's a $300 rebate for each of the program's 500 participants, but homeowners are expected to cover the remaining mitigation costs.

That price tag, combined with the program's insistence on property modification, may make it a hard sell in many communities. Boulder County Commissioner Cindy Domenico says other Front Range counties often see wildfire mitigation as "a limitation of (people's) ability to do what they want to do on their property," rather than a public safety initiative. Wildfire Partners' managers believe they can tune the program to fit other communities' preferences and budgets – say, by training volunteer assessors and using fewer county staff. But as Lisa Dale at the Department of Natural Resources, who awarded the grant to Boulder County, acknowledges, "It will be a tough program to replicate for communities with less capacity."

By the end of her three-hour assessment, Miles seems a bit overwhelmed. She has a sizeable to-do list – cutting down junipers, slashing mahogany bushes, removing masses of pine needles – and limited time and money in which to accomplish it. The participants' deadline is December 2014. "We'll just see how well we can meet an eight-month deadline," Miles says. "I'd bet we don't get out of this for less than $2,000."