What the High Park wildfire can teach us about protecting homes

  • Dave Cantor walks through the ashes of his home in the wildland-urban interface near Fort Collins, Colorado. His was among the 259 homes that burned to the ground in the High Park Fire in early June. A second Colorado wildfire, the Waldo Canyon, consumed another 350 homes weeks later.

    Joshua Zaffos


Dave Cantor's house in the hills outside Fort Collins usually draws friends for barbecue, horseshoes and recreational shooting on July 4. This July 3, though, Cantor sifts through its ashy remains, tripping over a downed power line and catching rotten whiffs from a freezer pried open by black bears.

Cantor, who co-owns a string of coffee shops, fled the day the 87,000-acre High Park Fire blew up in early June, with just his "dogs, guns, hard drive and a bag of dirty clothes." But Cantor, who's lived here since 1998, wasn't extremely worried; he and his neighbors had diligently cleared trees and brush around their properties on Whale Rock Road -- creating what's known as "defensible space" -- and used fire-resistant building materials.

Such measures are meant to protect structures from wildfire, and people in fire-prone areas have increasingly adopted them over the past decade. Despite Whale Rock residents' efforts, though, 40 of the 54 widely dispersed houses here were reduced to rubble. Whether the destruction caused by recent wildfires is a sign of inadequate execution or the failure of fire-safe strategies is a topic that researchers, firefighters and policy analysts are now debating.

"We have a pretty wide lack of awareness for the realities we'll be subjected to when we move into these types of locations," says Jack Cohen of the U.S. Forest Service's FireLab in Missoula, Mont. "At this point, we need to change the perception of houses being victims of fire to one of them being fuel."

Over the last 20 years, roughly 250,000 people have moved into Colorado's wildland-urban interface, where houses infiltrate forests, often in modern subdivisions. One out of every four homes in the state is in a high-risk fire zone, according to an analysis by I-News Network, a Colorado investigative journalism outlet. At the same time, wildfires have ballooned in numbers, size and intensity due to fuels buildup and drought. It's the same around the West.

Such communities account for much of the destruction during extreme blazes as well as for spiraling firefighting costs, which disproportionately go toward protecting lives and houses. The High Park Fire killed one woman and destroyed 259 homes. In late June, the 19,000-acre Waldo Canyon Fire tore through a Colorado Springs suburb, demolishing nearly 350 homes and killing an elderly couple.

Cohen studies how structures ignite during blazes. His work contributed to the development of Firewise, a program of the nonprofit National Fire Protection Association, which offers guidelines to help safeguard homes. Cantor and many of his neighbors used them to guide their thinning efforts. Neighborhoods that go further and adhere to a set of specific rules are recognized as official Firewise Communities; there are hundreds in Western states.

Forest managers and firefighters have supported such efforts since the passage of George W. Bush's 2003 Healthy Forests Restoration Act, which created community wildfire protection plans to evaluate risks and thin forests. Around Fort Collins and Colorado Springs, managers offered house-by-house assessments to identify hazards and to plan for fire responses and evacuations. Similar initiatives aid fire preparedness in communities in Arizona, New Mexico and Washington. Stimulus funds have continued outreach and paid for thinning.

Geoff Butler, a captain with the Poudre Fire Authority, serving Fort Collins and surrounding areas, says inventories of year-round residents and the locations of gates and water resources have increased firefighter safety during the recent fires. Whether the exercises improved resiliency of rural houses is a matter for closer study. "Given the events of the last few years, we have very fertile ground for research on (Colorado's) Front Range," Butler says.

The Colorado Springs fire marshal used federal funds to rank fire risks for the 36,000 homes in the foothills of Pikes Peak and otherwise assist homeowners. One official Firewise neighborhood, Cedar Heights, followed program practices, thinning trees in nearby open spaces, and didn't lose a single home during the Waldo Canyon Fire. Individual efforts in other areas, specifically the decimated Mountain Shadows subdivision, proved less effective.

It's hard to say why one subdivision burned and another didn't. But fire-safe measures are often hamstrung if only some residents employ them. And most fire-minded landowners, including those on Whale Rock, pick and choose which practices suit them –– hardly ideal, says Cohen. Plus, the gradual implementation isn't keeping up with the population boom in the wildland-urban interface.

The federal government isn't doing much better at insulating neighborhoods from fire danger on surrounding public land. "A lot of acres have been treated, but they've been dispersed across the landscape," says Tony Cheng, director of Colorado State University's Colorado Forest Restoration Institute. In order to be effective, scientists say, thinning should cover larger areas, and break up the density and distribution of timber and brush that fuel flames.

Efforts on public and private lands are often poorly coordinated, according to Cheng's research of community wildfire plans in eight states, including Colorado, Montana, Oregon and California. Federal projects tend to occur where managers can most accessibly clear fuels rather than in places that pose the worst hazard but may be more expensive. Prescribed burns are a cheap alternative to thinning, but are generally "politically unsavory" near neighborhoods, Cheng says, thanks to those few that expand out-of-control.

Local land-use rules have long been a proposed solution, but they're also the hide-scorched elephant in the room. Outside California, where wildfires have been burning communities since the 1990s, most city and county officials have been unwilling to enact or enforce development restrictions for the interface, such as prohibiting wood shingles. Just as society developed fire-safety codes for apartment buildings, theaters and other public spaces, basic rules, such as requiring mountain subdivisions to have multiple access points, should be no-brainers, says Tom Cova, a University of Utah geography professor who studies development patterns in fire-prone areas.

Still, Cohen and others believe education rather than regulation will encourage adoption of Firewise principles. "Cultural understanding of fire needs to evolve if we're going to navigate an uncertain future, including the climate," says Cheng.

Back at the end of Whale Rock Road, Cantor notes that roughly half of his neighbors don't plan to return. He wants to rebuild, however. He scans thick stands of charred and beetle-stricken pines and considers which trees to cut next summer. "That's what I've been doing for 14 years, thinning the forest around my house," he says. "But if there's a firestorm, it doesn't really matter."

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