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Waldo Canyon Fire • 5 years later

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Waldo Canyon fire spurred a culture shift toward preparedness, but much remains undone

Brett Lacey's job is to examine a house and imagine all the ways it could burn.

He's having a harder time doing that these days - a byproduct of many homeowners having taken to heart the dangers exposed five years ago when the Waldo Canyon fire burned 347 houses in one evening.

But he's also far from satisfied.

While the sight of a firestorm barreling out of Queens Canyon and into Mountain Shadows in 2012 spurred a culture shift toward greater wildfire preparedness among many in the Pikes Peak region, large swaths of El Paso and Teller counties remain susceptible to the next big burn. And while Colorado Springs emergency managers say they're better prepared to handle the next major wildfire, many concerns that existed in 2012 - such as narrow evacuation points across Colorado Springs' western edge and ignition-prone houses cradled by overgrown trees and bushes - persist.

"Compared to what I saw happen after Hayman (the colossal 2002 Colorado wildfire), I'm really kind of ecstatic at the change in perception amongst the public," said Dave Root, a Colorado State Forest Service mitigation expert. "If they're not going full bore, they're at least willing to do something and start the process."

But there remain holdouts, and experts say that each house left unprepared can heighten the risk posed to well-mitigated structures.

A wide view of Cedar Heights shows where the CSFD fire mitigation crews have cleared brush and trees to help protect the area against the threat of future wildfires in the area. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette)

"There are still people who still don't want anything to do with it, don't want to do the work, don't care, don't believe it," said Lacey, Colorado Springs' fire marshal. "And that's OK - but we know what's going to happen if you don't take care of your own stuff."

Every year, the danger grows.

Forests remain cluttered with dead wood and overgrown trees stemming from a century-long legacy of strict fire suppression. Climate change and years of record-hot temperatures have exacerbated the threat - especially when paired with residents' unyielding desire to live tucked away in a forest beneath America's mountain.

The sheer number of homes at risk of wildfire is greater than ever, as people keep moving into wildfire-prone areas despite back-to-back wildfires that leveled nearly 850 houses in 2012 and 2013.

CSFD fire mitigation crew member carries some of the tree branches to help with the mitigation process that helps with reducing the threat of future wildfires at The Spires Boardmoor on Tuesday June 6, 2017. Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette.

Since the start of 2012, more than 15,300 houses and commercial buildings have been constructed in El Paso County's wildland urban interface - an area that is particularly at risk of wildfires, according to data from the Assessor's Office and the Colorado State Forest Service.

That's because most of El Paso County is susceptible to wildfire.

Those new developments stretch from the foothills bordering National Forest land to the rolling prairies out east. While the greatest danger of an unstoppable crown fire lurks west of Interstate 25 and in Black Forest, the eastern plains remain vulnerable to flame as well. In February, for example, the fast-moving Milne fire scorched 3,275 acres of prairie land near Hanover, destroying several outbuildings and landscaping equipment.

The thirst for developing along the hillside mirrors a national trend. Across the nation, 43 million homes sit in that wildfire prone area, according to a recent 60 Minutes report. That includes the majority of houses built since 1990.

ENCOURAGING SIGNS

Increasingly, experts say residents in those areas are considering the risks of doing so.

Across the city, many people are creating defensible space around their houses and "limbing up" nearby trees - lopping off the bottom branches to keep fire from spreading up a tree's trunk into the canopy. The goal is to reduce a fire's intensity, because there's almost nothing firefighters can do to stop wind-fed flames once they begin racing across the treetops.

The work has left Lacey pleasantly "flabbergasted."

The number of homeowners associations and neighborhoods participating in the Colorado Springs Fire Department's wood chipping program nearly doubled after the Waldo Canyon fire from about 60 to 112, Lacey said. And many homeowners have taken advantage of a city program offering up to $500 in matching funds for private mitigation work.

CSFD fire mitigation crew member carries some of the trees and other brush to help with the mitigation process that helps with reducing the threat of future wildfires at The Spires Boardmoor on Tuesday June 6, 2017. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette)

Even the raw materials used to build those houses has changed.

New Colorado Springs building codes passed by the City Council six months after the Waldo Canyon fire ignited have been used as a template for many other communities across the nation, including the entire state of Montana. Now, new or rebuilt structures in hillside areas must only use ignition-resistant materials, such as stucco, brick or cementitious siding.

On a recent tour of southwest Colorado Springs, Jeremy Taylor, who heads the Fire Department's mitigation program, highlighted residents' heightened vigilance.

In lower Skyway, Taylor pointed out patches of scrub oak that were "limbed up" and away from a stucco-sided house. It was perfectly executed mitigation - except for the cedar left untouched against the corner of the house.

"You pull into your home every day, and you're not always looking at your yard through a fire lens," Taylor said. "A lot of the times it's something little - pulling mulch away from the house; clean your gutters. A lot of simple, simple things."

The city is far more prepared for the next firestorm, he said.

But loads of work remains, and the Fire Department wants to help.

In the 1950s and 1960s, developers in southwest Colorado Springs planted junipers and other shrubs up against houses - using them as selling points for increased security and privacy, because they covered up basement windows. It was a mistake with possibly devastating consequences, Taylor said.

He now spends much of his time lobbying homeowners to move trees and junipers away from their houses, to replace mulch and wood chips with rocks and to keep foliage from brushing up against a building's eaves.

It's called creating defensible space, and it's critical in a wildfire. Flames search for any openings into houses, and air pressure differences often cause houses to suck flames indoors. Embers can easily ignite wood shingles, as well as wooden decks and lawn furniture - possibly dooming a house.

Understanding exactly how well each neighborhood has mitigated against the threat of wildfire is difficult.

The Colorado Springs Fire Department maintains a parcel-by-parcel map of the city that is color-coded based on wildfire risk and mitigation steps taken at each property.

CSFD fire mitigation crew members clear out some of the trees and other brush to help with the mitigation process that helps with reducing the threat of future wildfires at The Spires Boardmoor on Tuesday June 6, 2017. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette)

But the department only has resources to allow one person to update the list - leaving many plots outdated.

A few blocks downhill in the Skyway neighborhood, Taylor showed off a 6-acre parcel of privately-owned open land that, two years ago, was too thick with scrub oak to walk through. Neighbors surrounding it called the fire department asking for help to clean up the property. And the parcel's owner lived in California and had no idea he left untended such a fire risk, Taylor said.

A grant secured by the fire department paid for mitigation crews to clear out much of the dead scrub oak while raising the canopy - making the hillside healthier in the process. The goal was to make fighting a fire there more manageable, said Capt. Steve Wilch, a fire department spokesman.

"The work they did here will give us that fighting chance to put fire apparatus up there," Wilch said, pointing to a row of houses at the top of the hill.

It's one success story, but more is needed.

"There's still hundreds of plots that we've never gotten to," Taylor said. "Every time we think we're getting ahead of the curve, we'll have residents say 'Hey, what about this plot over here?'"

LINGERING RISKS

Wildfire experts also say some lessons have been slow to take root. And many dangers that predated the Waldo Canyon fire remain just as perilous.

Just as before 2012, southwest Colorado Springs remains fire experts' top concern for its overgrown foliage, easily-ignitable houses and narrow roadways that make escape difficult and maneuverability for fire trucks all but impossible in some areas.

Evacuation drills have been held. Still, only a few large roads - most notably Lake Avenue and Cheyenne Boulevard - exist for evacuees to use in an emergency. Residents in the area successfully fought plans by The Broadmoor hotel in 2013 to close Cheyenne Mountain Boulevard for golf course improvements, fearing the elimination of a much-needed escape route. But just as few egress points exist now as did five years ago.

And the building code revisions passed by the Colorado Springs City Council only applied to new or rebuilt structures - leaving untouched thousands of wildfire-prone houses in the area.

"The unfortunate piece of this is that the south side of town is still in existence and it's not a retrofit ordinance," Lacey said.

Evacuation now in northwest Colorado Springs also may be more difficult than during the Waldo Canyon fire. Developers, heeding consumer demand, have packed apartments into the Rockrimmon area - leaving some residents concerned that the area is becoming dangerously congested for the next mass-evacuation.

It's happened without roads or intersections being widened to accommodate that growth. Councilman Don Knight, who lives in the Rockrimmon area, said he wants infill developers to help pay for the widening of existing roads in such areas.

"All that's going to do is delay how long it takes people who are actually closest to the fire," Knight said, of the development.

"We'll risk a lot to save a lot. And we'll risk little to save very little. So if it's not savable, we've got other things we can save."

Brett Lacey

Outside city limits, El Paso County leaders did not harden fire codes to the same extent. Some firefighting professionals have lamented the decision, but it was vigorously defended by past and present county leaders as avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach, while considering the different fire risks of rural communities.

The Waldo Canyon fire highlighted the importance of girding houses for an inevitable wildfire.

A study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology found a fraction of houses in Mountain Shadows were ignited by the wildfire itself. The rest caught fire from flames shot out of other engulfed houses, or from embers flying from other structures.

Not long after the fire rolled through did the neighborhood reach critical mass. Houses ignited at a rate faster than one a minute. Firefighters became overwhelmed. They saved 94 structures that caught fire, but it only took five and a half hours for hundreds of others to burn.

It taught one major lesson: "The ignitability of the structure is the risk," Lacey said. And, he added, the onus is on homeowners to give firefighters a chance.

"We'll risk a lot to save a lot. And we'll risk little to save very little," Lacey said. "So if it's not savable, we've got other things we can save."

Root, whose job it is to help harden communities against the threat of wildfire, lamented holdouts.

"There's an element of people who - there's no polite way to say it - don't get it," Root said.

He recalled resistance to a recently-completed project thinning trees in an unburned part of Black Forest.

A woman - herself a Black Forest resident who lost a home in the 2013 blaze - jumped out of her car and confronted the forester and the leader of Black Forest Together.

"The first words out of her mouth were 'I was burned; All my trees were burned up, and I think it's terrible you people are out here cutting trees,'" Root recalled the woman saying.

"We both kind of felt a little bit of shock about that attitude ... that even people who were burned in the fire and saw the destruction and what happened to them in a personal way can still be somehow anti-fuel reduction."

He understands how watching machines grinding up trees and scrub oak can be tough to see.

But living here requires a choice: Do that, or suffer a more devastating blaze.

"Fires are a natural part of the forest," Root said. "It's actually disturbance that renews and regenerates forest. And trying to protect them like they're little babies in swaddling clothes turned out to have its own bad unintended consequences."

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