Black Forest residents want to know if new fire codes are coming

August 13, 2013 Updated: August 13, 2013 at 3:20 pm
photo - Kel Kaercher stands among the burned trees on his Black Forest property Tuesday, July 9, 2013. Kearcher, who lost everything in the Black Forest Fire, narrowly escaped the flames by running through the woods ahead of the fire and jumping into a neighbor's small pond where he laid until the fire burned over him.    (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
Kel Kaercher stands among the burned trees on his Black Forest property Tuesday, July 9, 2013. Kearcher, who lost everything in the Black Forest Fire, narrowly escaped the flames by running through the woods ahead of the fire and jumping into a neighbor's small pond where he laid until the fire burned over him. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)  

Two months after the Black Forest fire, Kel Kaercher goes to every meeting he can, hoping to learn more about possible new fire codes in the fire-ravaged neighborhood.

But he has been disappointed. No one seems to know how the fire, the most devastating in state history, will or should impact rebuilding.

"I went to a meeting the other night," he said. "We brought that question up but there really wasn't an answer yet."

"We've moved on to where we are starting to think about codes, and there was nobody there to address those issues."

Kaercher, who lost his home on Wildoak Drive, said he and other residents often walk away from community meetings with the same kind of feeling: Community leaders and elected officials "are just not prepared yet" to give answers about fire codes and other questions pressing on the minds of Black Forest residents. Some aspects of recovery are relatively clear-cut - there will be a community mitigation plan, and some residents will be allowed to rebuild the same homes they lost with modern materials.

But whether El Paso County will follow in the footsteps of Colorado Springs - which enacted sweeping code changes for the hillsides after the Waldo Canyon fire - remains to be seen.

Even as firefighters were mopping up the devastating fire, which burned 488 homes and killed two people, residents wanted to know what would change, said El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn. As of early August, Glenn wouldn't speculate.

Ultimately, a new fire code would strive to strike a balance that would appease many stakeholders, but likely would cause controversy. Considering the desires of residents, fire districts and the county government, decisions on building codes are difficult, said Roger Lovell, with the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department.

"That's going to be the tricky part," Lovell said. "What's going to happen with the fire departments? What kinds of new regulations are they looking to put into place, and how they are going to do that?"

Rebuilding with fire in mind is a good idea

As a contractor, Kaercher gets it. Bolstering a neighborhood's defenses against fire is a good idea, he said; it can save homes and lives.

Many wildfire-ravaged or fire-threatened areas from Canada to California have adopted fire mitigation plans, and have mandated more wildfire-savvy home construction.

The U.S. Forest Service has created programs - such as becoming Fire Adapted or Firewise Communities - that give communities freedom to decide what they will and won't change.

As Mountain Shadows proved last summer, fire mitigation works, according to a National Fire Protection Association study completed in April. Fire codes, which often mandate noncombustible materials, also can minimize fire damages.

Kaercher said that as long as new codes are reasonable, he'd happily follow them.

What he doesn't get is why nothing has been done.

"You would think after Waldo Canyon they would have those codes ready to go."

After last summer's Waldo Canyon fire, which destroyed 347 homes and killed two people, the Colorado Springs Fire Department and the Housing and Building Association created more strict city fire codes, based on how the homes burned.

The codes ban wood siding and decks, and put in place small measures meant to keep embers from flying into attics. Although the codes were proposed soon after the fire was contained, it took several months for Colorado Springs City Council to vote them into law. The codes were driven mostly by the fire department; most residents accepted them voluntarily, long before they became law. A few disgruntled residents were angry that their neighbors, whose homes survived, would not have to comply.

Will Black Forest, where most homes were built before 1987, see such sweeping changes?

"I don't even want to speculate," Glenn said. In many ways, Black Forest cannot be compared to Mountain Shadows, he added. "Because it's apples and oranges when you are making those comparisons, when we really haven't had that deep of an analysis."

Unlike Mountain Shadows, a relatively uniform suburban neighborhood, Black Forest is a mixture of old and modern homes. Settled around the turn of the century, a few homes pre-date any sort of government building regulations; people lived by a Code of the West, the right to take their land and develop it as they saw fit.

El Paso County government caught up to Black Forest in the early 1970s, when the first building codes effectively abolished the Code of the West. While older cabins endured, a flurry of modern construction followed different rules. In the early 2000s, when the Cathedral Pines subdivision was built, fire mitigation was part of the plan.

Under the latest fire code adopted by the county in 2003, residents are required to have a "fire flow" inspection on their homes. Firefighters examine how well a home would withstand a fire, and often make suggestions - install indoor sprinklers or an outdoor cistern - to bolster the home. Sprinklers were mandatory in homes larger than 6,000 square feet - a controversial move, recalled Kaercher. In 2003, the Housing and Building Association lobbied to have that struck from the county's code. A new fire code was developed in 2009, but the county has yet to adopt it.

Even if the county updates or changes its codes, there remain thousands of homes in the Black Forest that did not burn. While some have fire-resistant construction, Kaercher wants to know if the rest will pose a fire hazard.

While fire mitigation programs have been nationalized, it is up to each community to set regulations, said Molly Mowery, a program manager with Fire Adapted Communities.

"When you have existing structures, it's hard to impose regulations after the fact," she said. "There are a number of ways to retrofit a community."

Three permits issued

Thus far, the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department is the only entity that is imposing regulations on rebuilding in Black Forest. Unless fire codes are changed, the local fire marshals can only make suggestions.

Residents have a few options when it comes to rebuilding, said Bob Croft, with regional building. Many residents will be able to re-create what they lost, using the same materials, as long as the home complies with safety standards, Croft said.

"There are three scenarios," he added. "The first is that you want to rebuilt the same identical house, and we have copies of those plans. We will let you build the same house on the same foundation if you get a letter from the structural engineer."

The second scenario is simple: If the home and foundation were destroyed, residents can rebuild the same house, Croft said.

The third option is to start fresh, building a custom home or a pre-designed home. Of course, there are modern safety provisions that must be in all the new homes, such as carbon monoxide detectors and smoke detectors, he said.

Three construction permits have been approved for the Black Forest by regional building, two for original homes and one for a mobile home, said Lovell.

Like the county - which relaxed land development codes to allow temporary homes in the forest after the fire - regional building is trying to make the process as easy as possible. All it asks is that new homes follow safety codes.

If more stringent fire codes are passed, Kaercher doesn't expect them to be too controversial. Most modern homes follow fire-resistant construction, he said.

"You've hit 75 percent of what the codes would probably entail, anyway," when rebuilding, he said. "You should have a house that should be as unburnable as possible. I am hoping that the codes are common sense codes. Anybody who has got a prudent thought in their mind is going to go back and build with the thought of their house burning."

In a letter to residents posted on regional building's website, the Black Forest and Falcon fire departments suggest "common sense codes" for residents to follow. As was done in Colorado Springs, they recommend Class A roofs, noncombustible siding and decks, and well-mitigated properties.

Until, and if, the county adopts new codes, what will become of homes rebuilt to the old code?

"How's the county going to handle that? I don't have an answer to that," Lovell said.


The Series

Sunday marked two months since the start of the Black Forest fire, a time for many to take stock of what they've been through and where they're headed.

Sunday: A couple struggles to decide whether to stay or go.

Monday: Grassroots efforts aim to heal emotional scars.

Tuesday: The prospects of rebuilding in a fire zone.

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