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Lessons learned from destructive Colorado Springs fire

Kathryn Sosbe
Office of Communication, U.S. Forest Service
August 23, 2013 at 9:30am

A row of houses threatened by a massive blaze in the distance. The smoke billowed so high, wide and dark, that in a photo of the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire dozens of Colorado Springs, Colo., homes are barely visible.

The inferno that burned on the Pike National Forest for 18 days lasted just four hours in Colorado Springs. But the wind-fueled fire claimed two lives, devoured 347 homes, scorched 18,247 acres and frightened the 32,000 evacuees and many others who feared how much hotter and destructive the fire could get.

It could have been worse. There are reasons that it wasn’t.

report by the  Fire Adapted Communities Coalition reported that 82 percent of the homes in the high-risk area were not damaged by the fire, in part because of efforts by the Colorado Springs Fire Department’s Mitigation Section, other agencies and city residents. According to data provided by the city and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the cost-benefit ratio in the Cedar Heights neighborhood only was 1:257, or for every $300,000 spent on mitigation work, $77.2 million in losses were avoided.

“Mitigation efforts by neighbors and the Wildfire Mitigation Section of the Division of the Fire Marshal coupled with aggressive fire suppression efforts by firefighting forces protected 100 percent of the homes in the communities of Cedar Heights and Peregrine,” said Colorado Springs Fire Marshal Brett Lacey. “Of the 47 homes in Mountain Shadows that participated in the neighborhood chipping program, 14 were destroyed.”

Colorado Springs’ success is documented in a written study and video by the Fire Adapted Communities Coalition. The fire is the first time the Fire Adapted Communities Coalition, which includes the U.S. Forest Service, could study a community that prepared for such an event post-wildfire.

Slash piles of wood from volunteers in Black Forest project.Among the major findings in the report are:

  • Building design and materials improvements and maintenance could have reduced losses. Embers ignited combustible materials on, in or near homes, illustrating the serious risk posed by embers carried by the wind and the need for residents to maintain defensible spaces and clearing debris.
  • Home-to-home fire spread lead to a relatively large number of home losses.
  • Fires spread from wildland to homes largely because of the house’s location on a slope the quality of treatment on the slope leading to the house.
  • Homeowners need to take appropriate measures to incorporate noncombustible building materials and construction details.

The report also lauded Colorado Springs for working with a variety of partners, from public policy makers to local community and business leaders to residents. The city passed codes and ordinances to ensure compliance, engaged the community, developed evacuation routes, practiced wildfire prevention and monitored fire danger, among other proactive steps.

“Communities at risk have a choice. They can do something to reduce their wildfire risk. Or not,” said Pam Leschak, WUI/Fire Adapted Communities program manager for the Forest Service. “Wildfire damage is not inevitable. Property owners and communities can reduce their risk by taking steps to adapt to living with wildfire. We want communities to know they can, and they should take those steps.”

Matt Prudhomme: Removing all the pine needles around my house before the dry summer in ColoradoThe study concluded that a community-wide approach is best when preparing against wildfires, especially working neighborhood-by-neighborhood to find ways to lessen the impact of wildfires. For example, homes closer than 15 feet apart can be vulnerable if a neighboring home that has not been well prepared ignites.

“Most mitigation is easy,” Leschak said. “It’s not expensive. It’s defensible space around structures (Firewise); it’s resilient building materials; it’s evacuation routes, situational awareness, community education and capacity (Ready, Set, Go!), fuels treatment and people working together to create a community wildfire protection plan (CWPP). The fire adapted communities concept is a holistic approach to mitigation . Just one mitigation action won’t do it. You have to do the whole potato."

“And it’s not just about protecting property. It’s first about protecting lives. People can save civilian and firefighter lives by preparing or adapting their community for wildfire.”

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