Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Wildfire experts share insight into Black Forest fire and importance of mitigation

By Garrison Wells Published: February 9, 2014

Wildfire experts are likely to be studying the Black Forest fire for years.

They will look at what caused it, how it progressed into the most damaging wildfire in Colorado history and how it could have been ameliorated.

Two local experts asking those questions are Walt Seelye and Keith Worley. The two were part of a team that has studied the Black Forest fire. Their analysis was presented to Gov. John Hickenlooper and more recently to an El Paso County Black Forest fire recovery committee.

Seelye is a Black Forest resident, former volunteer firefighter and Pikes Peak Wildfire Prevention Partners treasurer. He is also treasurer of the Black Forest Fire Rescue Protection District.

Keith Worley is a Larkspur resident and driving force behind one of the first Firewise Communities/USA sites in the nation. He's a professional forester, a Certified Arborist and wildfire mitigation specialist. He is also the secretary and past president of Pikes Peak Wildfire Prevention Partners.

The two answered questions from The Gazette this week.

Gazette: What are the risks and responsibilities for residents living in a wildland urban interface area?

Seelye: Risks are fire, flood and storms, including wind, hail and tornadoes. Responsibilities include behaving safely to avoid injuring someone, damaging property or triggering fire - and managing their property to minimize the effects of natural disasters. These actions protect homeowners and their neighbors.

Worley: Firefighters call it situational awareness, being aware of the risks around you and taking responsibility for them. For property owners in the urban interface, they own the fuel; they own the fire. Think of a floodplain or coastal hurricane area in terms of awareness and responsibility.

Gazette: Why do you believe people living in wildland interface are hesitant to mitigate?

Worley: First, it's lack of understanding about how unnatural their environment is.

Second, is well-intentioned, but misguided, sentiment of environmentalism. People brag about how many trees they saved when they built their house in an overgrown forest, as if this was a good thing. Third, loss of touch with the land. Keep in mind where most WUI dwellers come from - cities and suburbs. Ask a group of forest dwellers today if they've ever raised radishes or carrots. In my experience, 80-90 percent have not. Anyone who has grown radishes or carrots usually understands how plants become scrawny, stunted and sickly if grown too close together. Just like our forests. How many ranchers do you know who cannot cull out their herd? Or, farmers who do not weed or thin out their crops to raise healthy plants?

Seelye: People are afraid the result will look unnatural, even scalped, but we have many examples of property looking even better after mitigation. Mitigation requires great effort and significant expense. Some owners have neither means nor ability. Others are unwilling to commit resources.

Gazette: How much of a difference would mitigation have made in the Black Forest fire?

Worley: All you have to do is look at Cathedral Pines and State School Section 16 to see how fire behaved in a more natural manner. Keep in mind there is more to this than just mitigating forest fuels. It also means hardening structures to be more ember resistant. Research going back to the late 1990s has shown that 80 to 90 percent of structures are lost to embers - not the raging crown fire.

Seelye: Mitigation did make a difference on some individual properties. Better-mitigated adjacent properties, such as mine, where the fire intensity was reduced, stopped the fire 100 feet from my house. The best scenario is an entire neighborhood mitigates. A good example of this is Cathedral Pines, where only one home burned.

Gazette: You've called the Black Forest area "unnatural forest." What does that mean?

Worley: There have been three major human interventions in the forest:

- Overharvesting of trees in the 1800s. Most of the merchantable timber was cut for lumber, railroad ties, mine props and fire wood. It cannot be stated the area was clear-cut. The term foresters use is "high-graded." They took the best and left the "cull," the marginal, low quality trees, along with younger trees, too small to harvest.

- Aggressive suppression of fires over the past 100 years, which allowed younger trees to remain. This resulted in unnaturally dense stands of ponderosa pines. Keep in mind, tree stocking levels ranged from 20-50 trees per acre. We now find 200-1,000 trees per acre.

- Preservation of forests in their unnatural condition. Tree-cutting prohibitions exist in the form of covenants, conservation easements, park and open space regulations, etc. Our entire national forest system is a good example of this mindset of "preservationism" gone wild.

Seelye: A hundred years of fire suppression has allowed an unnatural buildup of fuel. Too many trees crowded too close together, none healthy, and there's too much underbrush. This is what led to the super-hot unstoppable inferno.

Gazette: How much of a risk did firefighters face during the fire because of the lack of mitigation?

Worley: Enormous risks. Fuel choked county roadways, dense forest fuels, unmitigated homes all put firefighters at risk.

Seelye: Extreme temperatures meant the firefighters couldn't always get close to the fire. The fire's rapid spread forced retreats, even emergency retreats.

Gazette: Did firefighters have enough training for this type of wildfire?

Seelye: Fire departments here have been increasing emphasis on wildfire training, including the special risks and tactics of wildland urban interface firefighting.

Gazette: What are some examples of areas in the state that have done a good job of mitigation?

Worley: Best examples are found in Firewise Communities across the state. A complete list is at www.firewise.org. Many have been working for years to partner and address their wildfire risks. Colorado Springs Fire Department has one of the best large-city Firewise programs in the nation. Perry Park, in Douglas County, is a good example of a community that acknowledged it has a fuel problem and set out to address it, starting in 2001.

Gazette: What are the possible consequences of residents in Black Forest rebuilding without taking steps to protect their property and homes?

Worley:

- Reconstructed homes, if not built to prevent ember ignitions, will always be at risk due to wildfires in the surrounding unburned areas.

- Trees will eventually regrow into burned areas. If not managed, the wildfire risk will return. In 10, 20 or 30 years, back to extreme fire behavior.

- Obtaining homeowner insurance will be either impossible or costly.

Seelye: When the next fire comes, it will be an even bigger disaster. Mitigation before rebuilding is easier than after buildings are in place.

Gazette: Who should control regulation regarding people living in wildfire prone areas, the state or local government?

Worley: Personally, I think local regulations are best. It is hard to come up with standards that cover prairies to mountain tops and many different ecosystems. Also, what if you abut federal lands where mitigation will not occur?

One idea might be to tie it to funding. Should local governments expect state support for fire suppression or post-fire mitigation efforts if the local government does nothing to prevent the problem from getting worse?

Seelye: Local government can tailor regulation to local needs. State government can underpin these with more generalized codes.

Gazette: What can builders do to help?

Worley: Add developers and Realtors to this list. The development, building and real estate community has a huge stake in this. The insurance industry is now on board. What happens when affordable insurance is no longer available to both new and existing homes in the WUI? To date, this cost has been borne by taxpayers in the form of fire suppression and post-fire mitigation costs.

Seelye: First, educate themselves about mitigation basics, not just methods but cost and benefits. Second, mitigate the property before building and include this in both cost and schedule. Third, build hardened structures. Fourth, educate the homeowner about the benefits in safety, lowered insurance costs, improved sight lines and beauty.

Gazette: Why should anyone who doesn't live in the WUI care?

Worley: Wildland fires have a huge impact on urban and suburban water supplies. Recreation opportunities are diminished in severely burned areas. Post-fire impacts are flowing (flooding) into urban areas. An example is Manitou Springs. Air quality is wrecked for days and weeks during major wildfires. Property tax base is diminished and can take years to recover, placing burden on the remaining tax base.

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