Ed Andrieski  /  AP file
This was the scene in Jamestown, Colo., last October when residents returned to what was left of their homes after a wildfire ravaged the community.
By Jon Bonné
updated 6/15/2004 4:44:04 PM ET 2004-06-15T20:44:04

The fire district of Four Mile is in fact some 10 miles long, winding up a canyon of dry forest with dazzling views. About six miles in live Al and Jean Riordan, two of 2,200 people in 16 communities settled across these 35,000 acres of hillside and valley. They know fire well enough.

They moved into their home here just after the 1989 Black Tiger fire, which incinerated 44 homes and other buildings outside Boulder.  Last year, as smoke from the nearby Jamestown fire rose over the ridgeline, those warnings about the perils of living up against the wilderness rang true again.

“I actually started to pack some stuff because we didn’t know what was going to happen,” Jean says.

The Riordan’s community of Melvina Hill had already been warned about their fire risk. In fact, they were told that if they didn't take measures on their own to protect their property, firefighters wouldn't risk their lives to save it.

“We came and said, ‘You’re all going to burn alive, your houses are going to be ash,’” recalls Bret Gibson, a local motel owner and Four Mile’s volunteer fire chief.

“We have learned from that," he adds.

Growing priority
The challenges Four Mile faces are prime examples of how life is these days in what has become known as the wildland-urban interface, where cities abut the wilderness. While Four Mile has been around since gold was found in the 1840s, most interface developments are new.

In the American West, with its persistent drought, overgrown forests and rising fire dangers, these communities — some 35,000 across the nation, according to the National Fire Plan — are a growing priority in the annual battle against wildfires.

As part a 10-year federal strategy to reduce the harm done by wildfires, about $119 million of the $2.4 billion in federal dollars spent last year on wildfire has been used on local grants for education and prevention efforts.

A simple combination of fire-resistant materials, good access roads and savvy landscaping are about all that’s required to fire-proof a property. Sometimes the bigger hurdle can be getting homeowners to act.

One recent assessment of the Four Mile fire district ranked 13 of its 16 communities at high to extreme fire risk. By the time Gibson arrived in Melvina Hill with his warning, the Riordans and some of their neighbors were ready to protect their property by choosing new building materials and trimming back trees close to their homes.

Down the hill, Remy Fourre trimmed back some, if not all, the trees right by his home.  A former volunteer for the fire district, he originally performed what fire officials call mitigation on his property about a decade ago, but last year he took advantage of a subsidized program for some Boulder County residents to retrim the intervening growth. Firefighters came to lend a hand. The cost: about $250.

“With a little bit of wind on a slope like this, fire will move faster than the fire truck,” says Fourre, staring down the steep hill below his wood-and-glass home. “The work done by property owners is much, much more important than what happens after the fire starts.”

That is precisely the message Boulder's fire department, and officials throughout the area, have been trying to spread in the 15 years since Black Tiger charred 2,100 acres and underscored the wildfire risks in Boulder County, which stretches west to the Continental Divide and east to the edge of Denver’s suburbs. 

Boulder gets organized
While many fire departments throughout the West simply hope for the best, and quietly fear the worst, Boulder established its own wildfire division in 1990, becoming one of the few cities in the country to do so. The “Hot Irons,” as Boulder’s Wildland Fire Team calls itself, are paid not just to fight fires but to change the way residents think about fire.

Though Marc Mullenix, the “Hot Irons” division chief, spends his summers as a federal fire incident commander, his crew of up to 10 aren’t there simply to tackle wildland blazes. They knock on doors and call local meetings.  They teach property owners how to clear out flammable brush and to choose the right materials for roofs and decks. And they bring another message, a slightly harsher one: If homeowners refuse to do their part, firefighters may no longer come to the rescue should flames appear in the hills one day.

“We’re partly to blame for years of 'dial 911, and you’ll get what you need,' ” says Mullenix.

Now, he says, “We’ve told people, we’re not going. We’re not coming.  I don’t know where it’s written that we die for your property.”

He and his staff have have won money to get every Boulder firefighter trained for “red cards,” the federal wildfire crew certification. They have hired private fire consultants to prepare intricate risk assessments of specific communities and subdivisions — complete with terrain analysis, satellite imagery and detailed ground surveys. And at their regular homeowners’ meetings, some residents get a little surprise: photographs of their houses tacked on the wall, complete with a report on how a wildfire would damage their property. The outreach has led some 30 percent of Boulder residents living in the interface to take steps to protect their property from wildfires.

These efforts have not come without resistance, of course. After the city banned wood shake roofs in 1994, the shingle industry sued. The law has since been upheld.

All of Boulder County is now a model for fire planning. Its building codes limit sprawl, which has reduced construction in the interface; its last subdivision was platted in 1978, and localities control 105,000 acres of open space. In unincorporated areas, new homes require a minimum of 35 acres, and any new building plan must be approved by a wildfire mitigation coordinator.

When developers do get approval, fire officials are quick to knock on their doors. For one new project in north Boulder, officials successfully replaced plans for traditional cul-de-sacs with looped access roads, with homes on the inside and the road as a built-in fire break.

New arrivals
Most cities haven’t gotten that far, but more are accepting wildfires as a community planning problem, not simply a freak occurrence. The International Code Council, which sets building standards, now offers a uniform wildfire planning code that has been adapted by communities such as Los Alamos, N.M., and Kern County, Calif. Like other building codes, cities and counties can use it to mandate new construction under fire-safe guidelines — including strict rules on roofing materials and landscape planning.

Now, officials say, other Western communities must make fireproofing as integral to the building permit process as obtaining water rights and conducting environmental impact assessments. 

But that approach only helps improve future risks. "Even if everybody in the world today were to adopt this code, we’d still have 30, 40 years of losses because of all the old stuff out there,” says Page Dougherty of the International Code Council.

Plus, homeowners keep flooding into the intermountain West from the Midwest and East Coast, requiring local officials to always be educating new residents. Mullenix estimates 40 percent of homes in some areas outside downtown Boulder are turning over each year. And the very qualities homeowners seek in expensive properties also happen to be huge fire risks: placement atop inaccessible ridges and on steep hillsides, surrounded by forests grown thick from years of fire suppression that often disrupted natural fire cycles.

“They think when they move up to the woods up there it’s natural,” says Mullenix. “It’s not natural. It’s unnatural. It’s unhealthy.”

House by house
These clashing goals are on plain view in places like Pine Brook Hills, a tony subdivision in the foothills just west of Boulder where the homes are expansive and in many cases worth more than a $1 million. At every corner, there are impressive views of the valley below, of Boulder and the flat plains beyond.

Essentially built into a box canyon, the development is a potential tinderbox. The steep, wooded slopes are the sort of terrain that fire easily rushes across. Roads, often private, are steep and twisting, daunting even in good weather; evacuation would be a huge challenge. Water hydrants are sporadic at best. 

Pine Brook Hills’ local fire authority offers free fire mitigation advice to homeowners. Some residents are listening, but others are not — this despite the fact that 2002’s Wonderland Lake fire threatened many homes here.

Chris White, a former Boulder County wildfire coordinator and founder of Anchor Point Group, a private fire consulting firm, points out the good and the bad. Some homes have concrete or metal porches and siding; others have wood. Some homeowners fastidiously clear away dead foliage and slash; others don't. One home just below a ridge line has large trees trimmed back from “zone 1,” its immediate vicinity; its stucco sides and tempered glass all follow county codes. Next door is an older wood house with gnarled ponderosa pines running almost to the door.

“Your next-door neighbor burns and you survive without even smoke damage,” says White.

Other approaches
Across the nation, especially in the property-rights-driven West, wildfire warnings are still often spurned. The national Firewise Communities program, set up in 1999 to certify localities that have reduced their risks, has just a few dozen participants.

While the federal government, driven by its National Fire Plan, has committed more funds to help towns and cities prepare, the real push may ultimately have to come from the private sector — with fire risk becoming another added cost of homeownership. Insurance companies are getting tougher about policies in fire-prone areas, but few buyers are asking their real estate agents about fire dangers while touring a neighborhood.

Up in Four Mile, Gibson is taking modest steps. Anchor Point surveyed his district last year and identified the biggest risks. He can’t afford to address all of the problems, like widening paved roads in some areas. But smaller measures, like posting street signs to identify previously unmarked roads, are affordable enough. Homeowners, calling for copies of the survey, have become more curious about the risks that surround them. And he reminds them, politely, that should they not take precautions, his all-volunteer force is going to be hard-pressed to help them when the time comes.

At the same time, he hasn’t forgotten how touchy the residents of Melvina Hill became after his previous warnings.  So he’s learning to temper his pitch, hoping to encourage homeowners to clean up rather than to scare them into resentment.

“I don’t want people telling me what to do to my house,” he says, “so I don’t want to do it to others.”

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