Colorado fights most destuctive wildfire in its history
In Colorado, Nature Takes a Fiery Toll Despite a Community’s Efforts to Prepare
The New York Times, June 15, 2013
DENVER — For years, families in Black Forest, Colo., did what they could to keep the flames at bay. They scooped up pine needles and trimmed low-hanging branches around their homes. They chopped down saplings and hauled dead trees to the community mulcher.
But when the fire came this week, hundreds of their homes still burned.
As fire crews fought Friday to contain the most destructive wildfire in Colorado’s history — a blaze that has now burned 400 homes, killed two people and spread across 15,000 acres — residents and public officials raised questions about whether faster responses or tighter fire regulations could have done anything to curb its destructive path.
“They’ve got to get on them faster,” said Tim Morrison, whose house burned to the ground. “You have a very narrow window of opportunity in this weather. The key is to be there with more.”
Officials in El Paso County said Friday that they believed the fire was human-caused, though they did not know whether it was an accident or arson.
Like earthquakes in California or hurricanes along the Gulf Coast, wildfires are a perennial danger in the tinderbox West. But experts say the wildfires are getting bigger and more destructive, made worse by years of drought and fire suppression, a rise in temperatures from climate change and denser development into the wild.
The six worst wildfire seasons of the past 50 years have happened since 2000, according to a recent report by Headwaters Economics, a Montana-based research firm that often examines fires and their consequences.
About 32 percent of the homes in the United States sit in what experts call the wildland-urban interface, high-risk areas where development and nature overlap. A report by the Forest Service predicted the numbers would grow as development spread and aging baby boomers looked for quiet, scenic places to spend their retirements. As more houses are built in the forests, fires and firefighting become more expensive, experts say.
Generations ago, Black Forest, about 60 miles south of Denver, was an assortment of farms and summer homes. Today, about 13,000 people live there among the ponderosa pines, in modest ranch homes and new million-dollar stone mansions.
“These homes are throughout the trees,” Gov. John W. Hickenlooper said Thursday. “We knew there would be a lot of losses, a lot of damages. That’s just an inherent risk.”
In the wake of the Black Forest fire, Mr. Hickenlooper said there was a need to make sure people in fire-prone areas were using the right materials as siding and shingles. But states and the federal government have limited sway, with most building and fire codes left up to local officials.
Last year, after a wildfire destroyed nearly 360 homes in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood of Colorado Springs, elected officials passed stricter fire codes for new and rebuilt homes in the city’s foothills. Some residents and public officials objected, saying it would add too many expenses to building costs.
In Black Forest, Eddie Bracken, the chairman of the community’s fire protection district, said there were plenty of incentives, but few requirements, for residents to reduce fire danger around their homes. Members of the largely volunteer department inspect homes if asked and suggest how owners can clean away brush. But he said homeowners did not have to follow the advice.
“We don’t have an enforcement capability,” Mr. Bracken said. “We shouldn’t. It’s personal property and individual rights. We don’t have the means or the desire or wherewithal to inflict a penalty on them.”
County officials said that residents were required to follow local fire codes and that homebuilders in high-risk fire zones were required to submit their plans to the county fire marshal or local fire department.
Residents in Black Forest said they spent much of their summers guarding against fires. They would attend meetings at the fire department and get together to reduce fire hazards along major evacuation routes.
But some said their neighbors were less vigilant, and they wondered whether homes littered with dead brush had helped feed the flames. The community wrote a long wildfire protection plan.
Brittany Culwell grew up on 10 acres of meadowland and woods, in a house her grandparents built, on a street that was once so new her family had the right to name it. As a child, she was warned that if she played with matches or lighted a candle outside, the whole neighborhood could be set ablaze. But unlike people in Tornado Alley, who are used to running to shelters, she said that wildfires were a distant threat. Only once, when she was 10, did the family evacuate.
“We knew the risk was there, but it hadn’t burned in 100 years,” she said. “We thought it never would.”
Ms. Culwell’s childhood home — which she said was kept meticulously clean of deadfall and high grasses — was incinerated in the fire, along with every other house on Coolwell Drive.