Mitigation work pays off for Black forest subdivision

June 21, 2013 Updated: June 21, 2013 at 5:20 pm
photo - The remains of one of the burned houses in the Black Forest burn area,Friday, June 21, 2013. Junfu Han, The Gazette
The remains of one of the burned houses in the Black Forest burn area,Friday, June 21, 2013. Junfu Han, The Gazette 

Sixty years ago, Black Forest residents lived by a "Code of the West"-they bought land and built on it as they saw fit.

But in the 21st century, parts of the secluded forest became prime areas for large upscale subdivisions, a departure from the rustic cabins nearby. It was one of these developments, Cathedral Pines, which fared best in the Black Forest fire, thanks in part to several million dollars spent on fire mitigation, as well as a little luck from Mother Nature.

The mitigation plans in Cathedral Pines pre-dated any houses, and were designed with safety, market value, and wildfires in mind, said developer Bart Atkinson.

"There is no question in my mind that it helped," Atkinson said of the development's aggressive fire mitigation plan.

Only one home in the subdivision of about 90 homes was lost in the fire, Atkinson said. Sheriff Terry Maketa has lauded the neighborhood along Milam Road as a prime example of the benefits of mitigation - the thinning of forest floor fuels and trees to keep flames from climbing into the tree-tops.

The forest floor in the Pines is partly charred; virtually no trees were destroyed.

"I don't think it was just because of mitigation to be perfectly honest," Atkinson said. "I don't think the mitigation is the whole story, but I think it is part of it."

Another key part was wind, which blew the fire mostly around the development. Mitigation efforts can fail when hit by a wall of powerful, wind-driven flame, which destroyed other neighborhoods not far away.

Developers began mitigating in Cathedral Pines in 2004, and the subdivision benefited from a marked change of forestry philosophy. From the get-go, Atkinson wanted the neighborhood to be fire-savvy, something that might not have been considered when the forest was first developed in the 1930s, he said. County land-use agreements also mandated a mitigation plan, Maketa said.

A state senate bill passed in 1972 gave El Paso County power to dictate building codes and land use in areas such as Black Forest, said El Paso County spokesman Dave Rose. It effectively abolished the de facto "code of the West"- the general belief that property owners had free reign to develop their land without government control.

But like most building restrictions, the new law was not retroactive, so cabins and properties that had been developed decades before were exempt.

One of the Black Forest's oldest communities, the Brentwood Country Club near Brentwood Drive, was exempted from the law, because most of its cabins were built in the 1920s and 1930s. Area residents had done little mitigation, observers said, and it was also one of the hardest hit by the fire - El Paso County Assessor records show that all but one home was lost. It was also a locus of the fire's intensity, in its direct path as it grew on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Atkinson and Cathedral Pines took a very different tack. Developers started first by thinning the 800 acres of dense forest.

"Before we even put any homes in Cathedral Pines at all, we went in and did significant mitigation and took out virtually one in every three trees," Atkinson said. "It was so thick in there you could hardly even see."

All remaining trees were "limbed"- had their lower limbs trimmed up to 15 feet, to prevent fire from climbing up into the canopy. The subdivision also has a network of ponds, usually stocked with fish, that Atkinson said were built to be deep enough for helicopter dipping buckets.

"They made those ponds so they could be dipped into during a fire," he said.

In a neighborhood mostly reliant on well water, developers also put in cisterns for firefighting use. The mitigation methods were extensive and expensive and had more benefits besides resident safety.

"It probably added some value to our land," Atkinson said. "It didn't look like an old beat-up forest."

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