In City of Colorado Springs, the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI)- areas where human development is close to natural terrain and flammable vegetation, covers more than 28,800 acres and includes a quarter of our population. Two years ago this week, the Waldo Canyon Wildfire, the most costly fire in Colorado history, hit neighborhoods across Colorado Springs and destroyed 347 homes.
The effects were devastating to our community and we are still rebuilding two years later. However, the losses avoided in some areas such as the Cedar Heights neighborhood, are a testament to the fact that wildfire mitigation works. Thanks to previous fuels reduction efforts in a nearby park (such as thinning trees and removing dead vegetation), the fire laid down and allowed firefighters to make a direct attack, saving more than 250 homes in the direct path of the fire.
Since 2001, the Colorado Springs Fire Department has established and expanded our Wildfire Mitigation Program to include a multi-pronged approach of community education and outreach, planning, strengthened building codes, fuels management, and grant administration.
Homeowners are a critical partner in whether or not we are successful in protecting Colorado Springs against wildfires. Firefighters cannot do it alone!
In 2001, we began the “Sharing the Responsibility” campaign to educate homeowners on their key role in the mitigation process. Currently, the Colorado Springs Wildfire Mitigation Program works with 109 Homeowners Associations and neighborhoods. We are fortunate to have several “Community Champions” that help promote mitigation efforts, such as organizing annual neighborhood meetings, during which we discuss each neighborhood’s specific hazard-level and discuss mitigation options. We also provide free property assessments for any homeowner that requests one.
In 2003, we began our Neighborhood Chipping program. We found that while many homeowners were motivated to take steps to remove fuels from their property, they did not always have the appropriate resources to do so. After seeing folks driving around town with tree limbs sticking out of their windows in sedans, the Fire Department collaborated with neighborhoods to initiate the chipping program. Homeowners remove fuel sources from their property, stack it at the end of the road, and we coordinate the chipping and removal of the material at no cost to individuals. We do this every year between April-October, with a schedule of when we will be visiting each neighborhood. Due to the demand, we have to schedule by neighborhood and unfortunately cannot respond to individual requests. We require at least 12 homes in the neighborhood to participate in order to sign up for a chipping date.
Along with individual properties, clearing out fuels on the common owned open spaces and parks is a critical part of protecting our communities. With the assistance of state and federal grants (including FEMA’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant), throughout the past decade we have been able to target open space areas adjacent to neighborhoods with extreme wildfire risk ratings. For example, a fuels reduction project in Solitude Park next to the Cedar Heights neighborhood was completed prior to the Waldo Canyon Fire and played a key role in protecting that community.
After the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire, Colorado Springs established an Ignition Resistant Construction Ordinance, which outlines building requirements for any new structures in the designated Hillside Overlay Zone of the city. Investigators discovered that the source of ignition for more than 50% of all homes destroyed in the Waldo Canyon Fire was fire brands or embers. These embers are carried by the wind ahead of the main fire and start small spot fires where they land.
This evidence reinforced the need to have strict ignition resistant construction guidelines for areas of the community with the highest risk. Requirements in this ordinance include the use of Class-A ignition-resistant roofing materials, double-paned windows, attic vent screens, and non-combustible decking materials (i.e. composite or metal) instead of wood. All homes in this area must also have a 15’ clearance of trees and brush from the main structure. We developed the corresponding Ignition Resistant Construction Design Manual which includes diagrams and pictures of each requirement. The Fire Department is also a part of the city permitting and final inspection process on any new homes or home renovations in the Hillside Zone.
Last year, we also began a Wildfire Mitigation Stipend Pilot Program. So far, we have mitigated 582 homes through this program, which provides a dollar-for-dollar cost share (up to $500 reimbursement) for homeowners in selected high-risk communities to mitigate their properties. The program is funded through private foundations, state grants and insurance industry donations.
We continue to work with neighborhoods, private industry, and our state and federal partners to develop a cohesive, comprehensive strategy to protect Colorado Springs against wildfires.
Editor's Note: The views expressed by Christina Randall do not necessarily represent the official views of the United States, the Department of Homeland Security, or the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA does not endorse any non-government organizations, entities, or services.