When it comes to forecasting wildfires, firefighters have a saying: “Only rookies and fools predict fire season.”
But, after one of the warmest years and worst fire seasons on record for Colorado, and with all signs pointing to another possibly severe season in 2013, the Pikes Peak region is getting prepared.
The Colorado Springs City Council recently adopted fire codes forged after the Waldo Canyon fire that are designed to improve the chances that hillside neighborhoods could withstand a conflagration.
For foothills homeowners across the city, the Colorado Springs Fire Department is encouraging fire mitigation by offering free vegetation consultations and chipping crews. On Tuesday, city and fire department officials will host a community wildfire awareness meeting to discuss fire mitigation and evacuation plans.
For those building in the wildland urban interface — neighborhoods such as Mountain Shadows that overlap with open space and forest lands — the new codes require fire resistant siding, composite decking, narrower attic vents, and a bigger buffer between houses and some vegetation.
Fire Marshal Brett Lacey, along with the Colorado Springs Housing and Building Association, proposed the codes in July and spent months discussing the proposed changes with residents, developers and city officials. When Lacey appeared before council this fall, he presented a few options for changes to the code. Ultimately, council went with Lacey’s prefered option, which is less restrictive than national standards but “much more appropriate for the community,” Lacey said on Thursday.
“I would venture to say that ours is one of the most proactive, short of adopting the national code,” Lacey said of fire codes across the state.
The national standard code for the wildland urban interface, called the WUI (“wooey”) for short, for example, mandates Class A decking materials — a requirement that Lacey thinks is unnecessary.
“We’re just requiring composite (decks). The composite performed better in our experience,” Lacey said. Composite decking is a mix of wood and fire-resistant materials, and is less expensive than Class A decking, which is entirely fire resistant, Lacey explained.
The new codes have had a mixed reception among Mountain Shadows residents.
Some who lost their homes resent the imposition new codes on their rebuilding projects. Others were dismayed that the surviving homes in their neighborhood will be immune to the code requirements, meaning homes will remain in Mountain Shadows with wooden siding and decks, and larger attic vents, all of which trapped showers of embers and fueled the June 26 firestorm that burned at least 346 homes.
“Unfortunately, we’ve got a large amount of the city that’s already built,” Lacey said, referring to homes that will not have to comply with the new codes. “But we’ve got to start somewhere. It’s not practical to keep looking back.”
Lacey expects Mayor Steve Bach to sign off on the codes soon.
That will make the codes final, but there’s still must be room for flexibility, Lacey said. In his mind, that’s the point of the mandatory home inspection by fire officials, another stipulation in the code.
“We want to be able to visit with people on a one-by-one basis,” he said.
“You have to do a little customization sometimes. We want to make sure that we are practical with the application of the code. We live on a hillside, and if we take away all the Gambel oak, then your house is going to slide down the hill,” Lacey added. “We really have to study the impact on the ecology.”
Although the fire most heavily hit the Mountain Shadows neighborhood, the codes will affect similar neighborhoods across the city that, in Lacey’s opinion, face the same risks in a wildfire. The hillside neighborhoods in southwestern Colorado Springs, south of Highway 24 and west of Interstate 25, are heavily forested with lots of dense growth, Lacey said. Streets in the area are narrower and lead to dead ends, making it harder for fire crews to maneuver.
Lacey and the department’s Wildfire Mitigation Administrator, Christina Randall, encourage these residents to “mitigate” their properties — thin scrub oak, and cut down dry, coniferous trees too close to homes. Randall offers free consultations with homeowners; she’ll walk around their properties, make suggestions for trimming, and her chipping crew will come and chip the piles of wood and scrub for free. Part of that service is paid for through grants.
But the sense of alarm from the summer fires lingers, Randall said. Her chipping crew worked throughout the summer and fall, responding to an influx of requests, she said.
“My crew was out doing mitigation work on Christmas Eve,” Randall said. “We do about 35 consultations a month. We were doing, after the fire, 45 to 89 a week. We were doing whole neighborhoods at once, going door to door like salesmen.”
Residents can request individual consultations, but chipping has to come by the street-load. Randall’s team has spoken at homeowners’ association meetings, in garages or living rooms about the program; 12 homes must participate in neighborhood meetings or get free consulations before the fire department will send out a chipper, she said.
This year, the crew, will have two chippers, thanks to a grant. Chipping season begins in April, although Randall is doing consulations.
Western fire seasons typically start around April, and last year the first devastating fire, the Lower North Fork fire, ignited in late March. Warmer temperatures and minimal rain and snowfall all make for a year-round fire season for Pikes Peak region.
One of the region’s worst fires worst fire was the Camp Carson fire in January 1950.
As for what the 2013 fire season has in store, Lacey says that it’s difficult to predict.
“It’s hard. We’re about mid-way through a five year drought right now,” he said. “I will say, it’s not going to look good.”
Contact Ryan Maye Handy: 636-0261