Colorado’s most destructive wildfire season claimed 650 homes, yet the state lacks a law requiring homeowners in high-risk areas to use non-flammable building materials and to clear vegetation around their residences.
Like a majority of states, Colorado relies on a hodgepodge of ordinances that encourage municipalities to create plans for protecting homes from fire and don’t provide penalties for not doing so.
After a blaze driven by hurricane-force winds consumed 346 homes in a Colorado Springs neighborhood last month in what’s expected to be the state’s costliest fire, insurers are calling for tighter restrictions.
“If we have a major takeaway from Colorado’s most destructive wildfire season, it is how can we address the issue of safer building codes,” said Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association, a Greenwood Village, Colorado-based nonprofit group that represents property and casualty insurers in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. “We have different building codes from municipality to municipality, from county to county. Colorado really needs to start looking at how can we consistently make our communities safer.”
Almost 40 percent of new homes in the U.S. in the past decade were built in what’s known as the “wildland-urban interface,” or residential communities bordering forests or grass lands. Fires in these zones are often ignited by humans using chain saws, firing guns or driving cars that backfire, fueling growth in the number, intensity and average size of blazes and multiplying losses.
About a third of the $3 billion used to fight such blazes each year goes toward defending homes in high-risk areas -- double the cost of a decade ago, said Ray Rasker, executive director of Bozeman, Montana-based Headwaters Economics, a research firm that analyzes the costs of wildfires.
The financial effects of wildfires on municipalities last for years. Burned homes decrease property values, causing counties to lose hundreds of thousands in tax revenue that in many cases is dedicated to financing local fire districts.
Wildfires also strain state and local resources. City departments lack equipment and gear to fight forest fires, and volunteers who often battle blazes on federal lands are dwindling in number.
“When people are building houses in single increments, the revenue tax base isn’t there for expansion of their fire departments,” said Bob Roper, a retired Ventura County, California, chief. “We end up stretching the limited resources we have up front with high expectations that the fire service will be there when a fire happens.”
Federal funding dedicated to training and equipping local departments to fight wildfires and helping communities draft protection plans is dwindling even as development continues. Homes exist on only 20 percent of the land in the West’s wildland-urban interface, Rasker said.
“We’re just starting to see the very beginnings of how big this problem is going to get,” he added.
Funding for federal programs fell 25 percent to $73 million proposed in fiscal 2013, from $97 million in fiscal 2011, said Jake Donnay, senior director of forest policy at the Washington-based National Assn. of State Foresters.
“We’re pulling from our fuel reduction and prevention programs to pay for suppression,” said Jim Karels, state forester for Florida, where 18 million people live among 26 million fire-prone acres. “It has a snowball effect which makes it worse each year.”
In Oklahoma, fire departments are struggling to protect homes built in the past decade in unincorporated forested areas and grasslands outside Tulsa and Oklahoma City that lack building codes requiring non-flammable materials.
“There are million-dollar plus homes built in rural areas on dirt roads -- it’s hard to get fire equipment there,” said Robert Doke, Oklahoma’s fire marshal. “There’s a lack of high-pressure water lines for the fire hydrants and these structures are built with more light-weight laminates, which causes them to burn quicker.”
In New Hampshire, officials worry that a boom in second-home construction by New Englanders in the White Mountains is a conflagration waiting to happen.
“If we get a real dry spell, I think there will be significant threat to loss of property and life,” said Bill Degnan, New Hampshire’s fire marshal. “If we have one major incident, we all end up paying for it.”
The financial impact can last for years. In Boulder, Colorado, where the Fourmile Canyon blaze burned 169 homes in a wooded area northwest of the city in 2010, the county lost about $100 million in property value, said Jerry Roberts, the county’s assessor.
“We lost $823,000 a year in property tax collections,” he said. “These little volunteer fire districts operate on very low budgets and all of a sudden a fire comes through and it wipes out their tax base.”
As many as 66,000 communities nationwide are at-risk of a wildland fire, yet only 5.4 percent of these are protected by voluntary fire protection plans or ordinances, according to a report released in January by the National Association of State Foresters.
Even states that mandate defensible space -- like California, where firefighters can fine homeowners in areas protected by Cal Fire if they don’t clear 100 feet around their homes -- rules are not consistently enforced, said Ray Moritz, a San Rafael, California-based fire ecologist.
“The vast majority of homes I look at do not meet defensible space guidelines,” said Moritz, a former firefighter. “On a certain level, firefighter associations are unwilling to alienate the public by enforcing the codes.”
About 770 communities in 40 states use the Firewise Communities Program, created by the nonprofit National Fire Protection Association in 2002, to help them write plans to protect homeowners and businesses. These measures aren’t cheap to enact.
In Colorado Springs, the state’s second-largest city, nestled against the foothills at the base of Pikes Peak, firefighters on the Waldo Canyon blaze credited a decade of work to enact Firewise policies in neighborhoods ringing the city, as well as an ordinance that requires new homes be built with non-flammable roofs, with saving many residences.
In the city’s southwest, Cedar Heights residents relied on a $300,000 grant from Federal Emergency Management Agency to help clear 100 acres of parkland atop the community of a tangle of dead scrub and gamble oak and pine trees.
The effort, which homeowners were required to match by thinning trees and vegetation around 190 homes with expansive views of the city, saved the neighborhood, whose motto is “Minutes Away, Worlds Apart.”
“The mitigation effort was very critical to the fire department’s ability to control and stop the fire before it got to Cedar Heights,” said Dick Standaert, who lives in the neighborhood.
Many communities are resistant to Firewise, which seeks to teach homeowners that blazes are ignited by embers fueled by pine needles in gutters, cushions on deck chairs, mulch around flower beds and fences surrounding properties, said Michele Steinberg, Firewise Communities Program manager.
“There’s a lot of denial about the actual risk that exists,” she said.
-- Editors: Jeffrey Taylor, Michael Hytha