When big fires destroy neighborhoods, they seem to roar through the streets like a lion.
But Keith Worley knows they actually scurry into houses like a mouse.
Worley, president of Pikes Peak Wildfire Prevention Partners, has had too much experience with suburban wildfire the last two years.
In 2012, the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs destroyed 346 homes, a Colorado record. The record didn’t even stand for a year before the Black Forest Fire torched 488 homes in June.
“We’re going to see the same thing happen again and again and again. This is only the beginning,” Worley said.
Worley pushes the message of Firewise, a national organization that seeks to make forest communities better prepared to survive a wildfire and safer for firefighters to defend.
Firewise took hold in Southwest Colorado after the 2002 Missionary Ridge Fire, which claimed 56 homes.
Since then, the Front Range has seen at least four fires that were several times as destructive as Missionary Ridge. In the rubble, there are lessons to learn about how to make Firewise more effective.
Green grass in Black Forest
The smell of wet charcoal still hangs in the air at Black Forest, more than two months after the fire north of Colorado Springs.
Everywhere are signs of the fire’s power. Concrete chimneys serve as gravestones for houses that burned completely. A decorative plastic fence that melted in the heat is draped on the side of the road like a huge spaghetti noodle.
But in one neighborhood, the ground is already green, and all the houses but one are standing. Only the singed lower branches of the trees hint that anything happened here.
This is Cathedral Pines, a neighborhood full of mansions that is now a national example of Firewise done right.
Neighborhood covenants required homeowners to create defensible space around their houses by removing some of the trees that grow thickly in other parts of the Black Forest.
“When it hit that zone of continuously mitigated properties, that was basically a line of demarcation. That was the Rubicon line for making a stop,” said Black Forest Fire Chief Bob Harvey.
The fire that had been raging up in the trees dropped to the ground, where engine crews surrounding the houses could fight it, Harvey said.
Winslow Drive marks the western edge of Cathedral Pines. The unthinned trees west of the road are nothing but black sticks. But east of the road, the houses and trees are still there. The fire did indeed blow through here, but it burned at a much lower intensity.
‘It’s the little things’
At a casual glance, it’s hard to notice the work that was done at Cathedral Pines, because so many trees remain.
When Firewise got going in Southwest Colorado, organizers had to struggle against the perception that it was all about cutting down trees.
“Everybody thought, oh, my gosh, you’re going to clear the forest, and that’s why we live here,” said Judy Winzell, a Firewise ambassador in the Falls Creek Ranch neighborhood northwest of Durango.
But with patient work and cooperative neighbors, Falls Creek Ranch became one of three developments in Southwest Colorado to be nationally certified as a Firewise Community.
”It’s nothing short of a miracle the way people have come around,” Winzell said.
Pam Wilson, director of the Southwest Colorado chapter of Firewise, said much work remains in the region, but the neighborhoods that used to worry her most have begun to take action – especially Vallecito.
“I think we’re probably going to see more work done in the next two years at Vallecito than we’ve seen in the last 10 years. They finally had their wake-up call. And that community, once they decide to do something, they really get after it,” Wilson said.
The work isn’t limited to trees.
When Worley helps homeowners figure out how to harden their houses against fire, he pays attention to the little spaces. The corner by the fence where the wind always drops dead leaves is the same place where a fire will deposit burning embers. The crack between the garage door and the driveway where mice come in is the same route that tongues of flame will use to sneak into a home.
“It’s the wood pile. It’s the patio furniture that ignited. It’s the needles in the gutter,” Worley said. “It’s the little things. It’s our stuff.”
Critics of development in the forest worry that Firewise practices may give homebuyers a sense of bravado.
“It’s great for established neighborhoods to create defensible space,” said Roy Rasker, an economist with Headwaters Economics in Montana. “For the undeveloped land, it may serve as an enabler. You may be telling people it’s OK to build in dangerous places.”
And Firewise is no guarantee of safety.
“There were a lot of evacuees who lost their houses who said they did defensible space, and it didn’t work,” Worley said.
But when only a few homeowners mitigate their property, he said, the firebreak will not be big enough to stop a large fire.
That appears to be what happened in Boulder County’s Fourmile Canyon Fire, which destroyed 168 homes in the fall of 2010.
The Forest Service’s report on the blaze found “no evidence” that mitigation measures the community had taken altered the fire’s spread at all.
Forest health projects had mixed results, said Garry Sanfaçon, who served as Boulder County’s director of recovery efforts from the fire.
“They thinned the trees, but the fuel was not removed from the forest, so that was an issue,” Sanfaçon said.
Boulder County adopted one of the state’s strictest building codes for homes in the forest in 1994, with requirements for defensible space and fire-resistant materials. Most of the houses built according to the code survived the fire, Sanfaçon said.
In the largest fires, flame lengths can reach 150 feet or more, so no reasonable amount of mitigation will keep a house safe.
“In really dry years like this year and last, all bets are off as to whether the mitigation will make any difference,” Wilson said.
Still, Wilson and her allies say forest residents owe it to their neighbors and their local firefighters to try to reduce the danger on their property.
“We’re strongly pushing that sense of responsibility. If you’re going to live next to the forest, it’s really no different than putting your garbage in a bear-resistant container,” she said.