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Report: New approach needed to prevent wildfire disasters

Fourmile Canyon Fire destroyed 35 percent of homes within fire perimeter

Even widely spaced trees can burn if the crowns extend down to the ground. PHOTO COURTESY MIKE TOMBOLATO.

More wildfires along the Front Range are inevitable, and the Forest Service wants to take lessons learned at the Fourmile Canyon Fire to try and prevent destruction of property and loss of life.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY —The U.S. Forest Service says preventing wildfire disasters requires a change of approach, away from costly and “strategically ineffective” efforts aimed at increasing fire protection capabilities.  Instead, efforts should be focused toward reducing the ignition potential directly around homes in the wildland-urban interface.

Read more on the effectiveness of forest treatments in the comment section of this post in the New Century of Forest Planning blog.

The findings were part of a preliminary report issued this week on the Fourmile Canyon Fire. More than one-third of the homes within the perimeter the fast-moving fire near Boulder were destroyed, most of them in the first 12 hours of the blaze, according to the preliminary findings. A final peer-reviewed version of the report is scheduled to be published in January.

The condition of the home ignition zone — the design, materials and the maintenance of the home and the area 100 feet around it — was critical to whether a home survived the Fourmile Canyon Fire.  Adobe and non-wood homes where homeowners had removed flammable ground material (like pine needles, grass and even wooden decks) were likelier to survive.

The Fourmile Canyon Fire was Colorado’s costliest ever, with damages totaling more than $200 million — more than four time the amount of damage caused by the Hayman Fire, but no lives were lost.

Hundreds of homes in foothill neighborhoods were exposed to potential ignition in a short period of time, simply overwhelming fire suppression efforts. According to the report, there were 474 homes within or very near the fire perimeter, and 168 of those dwelling were destroyed. The majority (82.7 percent) were ignited by surface fires burning immediately around the homes, while 29 homes (17. 3 percent) were ignited by crown fires.

“When news about the Fourmile Canyon fire started coming in, I was first thankful that no lives had been lost, and then I wanted to know how we could learn from this tragedy,” said Sen. Mark Udall, who asked the Forest Service for the report.

“We had a chance to study the things that went wrong – and what was done right – to ensure that we can react better to future wildfires,” Udall said.

Foremost among Udall’s concerns is that homeowners be aware as soon as possible that their individual actions are the single most important factor in protecting themselves from a catastrophic wildfire.

“This fire taught us that the most important yard tool you can have if you live in a wildfire-prone area is not a chainsaw; it’s a rake and a weed-whacker.  This won’t always protect your home from wildfire. Some Fourmile Fire homeowners worked hard to create defensible space and still lost their homes, but it’s a concrete step that can make a huge difference. We all have a role to play in fighting wildfire.”

After touring the site of the fire last year, Udall was struck by the intensity of the fire and how indiscriminately it hit homes and buildings: some structures were spared while others – sometimes right next door – were completely destroyed.  He asked U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and then-Governor Bill Ritter to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the fire, and the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station assembled an expert team to conduct the study.

Additional noteworthy findings include:

  • Because of extreme weather conditions, this fire spread fast and burned very intensely. The first day of the fire had exceptionally low relative humidity coupled with high wind conditions – extreme, but not uncommon for the Front Range, so we must be prepared for more of these types of fires.
  • The researchers found that our fire responders’ efforts were very well-executed. No lives were lost even though it was a fast-moving and very dramatic fire in one of the most densely developed areas of the foothills. They also found that air tankers were used very effectively.  While high winds kept them grounded most of the first day, the tankers were in the air as soon as winds died down and dropped a total of 86 loads of retardant (174,149 gallons).
  • Fuels reduction is a critical tool that helps to reduce wildfire risk, keep forests healthy and protect our water supplies. Udall wants to ensure that we are spending resources effectively by treating large areas and clearing trimmed trees and brush off the ground after a treatment. When done correctly, prescribed fire is a safe and effective tool, even near communities, and Udall hopes to see it used even more. He invited the research team to come back and meet with federal and state land managers and local officials to understand this issue better.

The draft report:

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