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Group studies fire mitigation efforts in Black Forest

July 30, 2013 Updated: July 30, 2013 at 7:40 am
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photo - Richard Hoffman walks through the remains of his house on Hardin Road Tuesday, June 18, 2013, after some residents were allowed to return to their homes a week after the Black Forest Fire started. As of Tuesday, 502 homes were destroyed and the fire is 85 percent contained.    (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
Richard Hoffman walks through the remains of his house on Hardin Road Tuesday, June 18, 2013, after some residents were allowed to return to their homes a week after the Black Forest Fire started. As of Tuesday, 502 homes were destroyed and the fire is 85 percent contained. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)  

A preliminary assessment of how well mitigation efforts worked in saving homes in the Black Forest fire could be ready by the end of August, said Keith Worley, president of Pikes Peak Wildfire Prevention Partners.

"I think we'll be able to report to you very positive outcomes," Worley told the Task Force on Wildfire Insurance and Forest Health on Monday during a regularly scheduled meeting in Denver.

"We weren't there just to look at dead houses. You really don't learn much from looking at burned-down houses ... We looked at peripheral homes, that's where you find mitigation worked and firefighter-intervention worked."

Specifically, the Cathedral Pines and High Forest Ranch neighborhoods appeared to have effective mitigation, he said.

Thirty-five people participated in a three-day assessment of the fire, volunteering more than 450 hours, Worley said.

The state task force, created by the governor in January, seeks to encourage homeowners in high-risk areas - particularly the wildland-urban interface - to take action to protect their homes. The group is considering everything from mandating fire-preventative building codes to creating tax incentives or penalties for non-compliance.

"We've been struggling for 20 years to convey this message," Worley told the task force. "In the case of the Black Forest fire, we all knew it was just a matter of when. We knew that - that was a community that did not accept wildfire mitigation readily."

Worley's group works to reduce the threat of wildfire in El Paso, Douglas and Teller counties and consists of wildfire professionals, homeowners and mitigation contractors, among others.

Barbara Kelley, executive director of the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies, asked why the Black Forest community would resist fire mitigation efforts.

"It's an eclectic environment that they bought into," said Bob Harvey, chief of Black Forest Fire/Rescue. "They see what they believe to be natural and they want that privacy and they want that separation from their neighbors."

Harvey said there is the mantra of both save and preserve.

"Really, we've preserved the unnatural," he said.

The natural would be a forest that has healthy fires that reduce the tree density. Worley is hoping his study - conducted with volunteers from fire departments and police departments across the state - will help persuade homeowners to take fire prevention steps.

The group also interviewed on-scene firefighters about what worked, what didn't, what houses were beyond help and any dangerous situations in which they found themselves.

"I cannot tell you how many harrowing experiences I have heard," Worley said, adding he hopes the stories will be further incentive to homeowners to take action.

"It's for the homeowner who claims he loves the firefighter and yet doesn't mitigate his property," he said.

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Contact Megan Schrader

719-286-0644

@CapitolSchrader

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