Cities now struggling from past fire-suppression efforts

April 17, 2014 Updated: April 17, 2014 at 10:13 pm
photo - Colorado Springs Deputy Fire Marshal Kris Cooper talks about the state of the wildfire threat in Colorado. Cooper was a speaker at the 2014 Colorado Wildland Fire Conference. Image from a video by Matt Steiner.
Colorado Springs Deputy Fire Marshal Kris Cooper talks about the state of the wildfire threat in Colorado. Cooper was a speaker at the 2014 Colorado Wildland Fire Conference. Image from a video by Matt Steiner. 

Peter Brown, the keynote speaker at the 2014 Colorado Wildland Fire Conference in Glenwood Springs, described a pattern Wednesday evening of fire suppression that began in the late 19th Century and has left 21st Century fire officials scrambling to stop the western United States from burning down.

Brown is the director of Rocky Mountain Tree-Ring Research. His firm's in-depth study and analysis on fire-scarred cross sections of trees reflect more than 120 years of fire mismanagement, he said. Almost every scarred that Brown and fellow researchers slice open show a sudden halt in fire activity since about the 1880s, which he attributes to several factors including the rush for gold and influx of ranchers west of the Mississippi River.

The scientist, firefighters, ecologists and others at Wednesday's and Thursday's conference all said the pattern has caused an urgent need to change the way people think and act toward wildfire. Several presenters at the meetings urged fire officials and emergency planners to buy into a concept called Fire Adapted Communities if they haven't already done so.

"We can't go back," Brown said, just moments after his conclusion that fire is inevitable. "But we can use history to provide guidance."

Brown's presentation concluded Wednesday's events and segued into Thursday morning's sessions that featured Colorado Springs Deputy Fire Marshal Kris Cooper discussing changes in the city's codes, approach to wildfire education and need for private landowners to join the cause.

Cooper said it took almost 10 years and the destructive Waldo Canyon fire to motivate 13,000 homeowners in the Wildland Urban Interface in western Colorado Springs to replace wood roofs with fire resistant materials, a mandate that was passed in the city in 2003. The Waldo Canyon blaze destroyed 347 homes in the Mountain Shadows area and led to even more fire-wise building codes that took effect in early 2013.

Colorado Springs now requires the roofing, exterior walls made of ignition-resistant materials, solid core doors, heat retardant window glazing and thicker attic screens in neighborhoods with increased fire risk like those along the WUI. Several homes have already implemented the requirements as Cooper said 228 of the 347 houses destroyed when fire roared into the city June 26, 2012 have been rebuilt.

Cooper, Jonathan Bruno of the Coalition for The Upper South Platte and president and owner of Wildfire Planning International Molly Mowery each said Thursday that revamped codes and regulations need to go hand-in-hand with individual responsibility in order to achieve "Fire Adapted Communities."

Bruno is a proponent of allowing the forest to mitigate itself through ground fires. Those easily manageable blazes were the norm before the late 19th Century when people became obsessed with putting out every fire as quickly as possible. Bruno said education and mitigation to restore forests to a pre-20th Century state is like a layer cake.

He said if federal, state, regional and local officials join with homeowners associations and individual residents, the result will be a sweet one.

"This isn't going to stop," Bruno said, referring to increased fire activity as a result of extreme climate conditions and more and more people moving into the WUI.

Bruno and CUSP volunteers have already been thinning forests around Teller County and Park County towns, attempting to create a barrier that will slow fire and keep it low as it approaches.

Mowery believes that turning WUI areas into Fire Adapted Communities is definitely possible.

Colorado's Summit County, Woodland Park and La Plata are three of eight pilot communities in the United States. Each have a Community Wildfire Protection Plan in place and are engaging the public and working toward streamlining fire mitigation and response to become model Fire Adapted Communities. Ten more will be added in June 2014, Mowery said.

When asked what Fire Adapted Communities look like, Mowery had a simple answer. She said in a completely adapted community "wildfire is just another weather event, like a thunderstorm."

"The goal is to get to the point where it's so prepared that there's little or no resources needed to deal with a fire," she said.

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