Colorado has not enacted key solutions to devastating wildfires


By Jennifer Oldham for ProPublica

Sheriff’s deputies driving 45 mph couldn’t outpace the flames. Dense smoke, swirling dust and flying plywood obscured the firestorm’s growth and direction, delaying evacuations.

Within minutes, landscaped islands in a Costco parking lot in Superior caught fire as structures became the inferno’s primary fuel. It consumed the Element Hotel, as well as part of a Tesla service center, a Target and the entire Sagamore neighborhood. Across a six-lane freeway, in the town of Louisville, flames rocketed through parks and climbed wooden fences, setting homes ablaze. They spread from one residence to the next in a mere eight minutes, reaching temperatures as high as 1,650 degrees.

On Dec. 30, 2021, more than 35,000 people in Superior and Louisville, as well as unincorporated Boulder County, fled the fire — some so quickly they left barefoot and without their pets. Firefighters abandoned miles of hose in neighborhood driveways to escape.

The Marshall Fire, the most destructive in Colorado history, killed two people and incinerated 1,084 residences and seven businesses within hours. Financial losses are expected to top $2 billion.

The blaze showed that Colorado and much of the West face a fire threat unlike anything they have seen. No longer is the danger limited to homes adjacent to forests. Urban areas are threatened, too.

Yet despite previous warnings of this new threat, ProPublica found Colorado’s response hasn’t kept pace. Legislative efforts to make homes safer by requiring fire-resistant materials in their construction have been repeatedly stymied by developers and municipalities, while taxpayers shoulder the growing cost to put out the fires and rebuild in their aftermath.

Many residents are unaware they are now at risk because federal and state wildfire forecasts and maps also haven’t kept pace with the growing danger to their communities. Indeed, some wildland fire forecasts model urban areas as “non-burnable,” even though the Marshall Fire proved otherwise.

The disaster put an exclamation point on what scientists, planners and federal officials warned for years: Communities outside the traditional wildland-urban interface, or WUI, are now vulnerable as a changing climate, overgrown forests and explosive development across the West fuel ever-unpredictable fire behavior. Fire experts define the WUI, pronounced woo-ee, as areas where plants such as trees, shrubs and grasses are near, or mixed with, homes, power lines, businesses and other human development.

They now agree that instead of a threat confined to the WUI, the entire state, including areas far from forests, may be at risk of a conflagration.

“The Marshall Fire was a horrible, tragic event that served as a wake-up call for the rest of our state,” said state Rep. Lisa Cutter, a Democrat who represents mountain and foothill areas. “I don’t think we realized how much wildfire could impact communities that aren’t deep in the forest — it’s not something any of us are immune to.”


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