Foundations are all that’s left of the Sagamore neighborhood in Superior after the Marshall Fire tore through the development last month. Every home in the development was destroyed in the fire. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)
In the Boulder County foothills, people building homes must follow a checklist of requirements meant to keep them safe from wildfire.
Roofs and decks must consist of fireproof materials. Fences must be more than 3 feet from homes, discouraging flames from traveling from one to the other. Three feet of gravel must surround a house’s foundation, and vents must be covered with wire mesh to prevent embers from getting inside.
All are examples of “hardening” that allow homes to better withstand flames should a fire ignite.
Yet a few miles away, in Superior and Louisville, where the Marshall fire incinerated nearly 1,000 homes on Dec. 30, no such rules apply.
“Our efforts since 1989 in wildfire mitigation programs have been focused in the foothills and mountains,” Jim Webster, Boulder County’s Wildfire Partners coordinator said during a Feb. 9 community meeting. “But we have not been active in terms of our regulations and programs in the fire footprint of the Marshall fire.”
Marshall Fire coverage
The differing standards in unincorporated Boulder County, which has building codes meant to reduce the impact of wildfires, and Superior and Louisville, which do not, highlight Colorado’s patchwork approach to protecting homes and lives from the threat of wildfires. Instead of relying on a statewide building code to govern new home construction, as in some other fire-prone states, Colorado leaves it to communities to craft their own policies.
It’s a hands-off approach that leaves some Coloradans less protected from the threat of disastrous fires, critics say.
Some experts say now is the time for a change, particularly as Colorado gets hotter, drier and more populous. But some local and state officials say there’s no need to change Colorado’s deference to local control, an argument that has long derailed talk of a statewide code.
“We’re kind of at this transitional opportunity to be more proactive,” said Molly Mowery, executive director of the nonprofit Community Wildfire Planning Center. “It’s like OK, let’s really try this as opposed to watching it burn more places.”
Boulder County officials have already directed homeowners wanting to immediately rebuild in unincorporated parts of the county to do so with fire mitigation measures in place. The county began including wildfire mitigation in its building and planning processes after the 1989 Black Tiger fire, which destroyed 44 homes and buildings.
Now, officials in Louisville and Superior are talking about changing their rules to incorporate similar wildfire mitigation standards.
“Who would have thought that suburban communities that look like every other suburban community in the United States would burn down due to wildfire?” Superior Mayor Clint Folsom said.
Folsom will now look differently at every community downwind of a grassy area on a windy day, he said. “Any of them could be vulnerable to that if fire starts.”
The question of whether to add new fire mitigation rules, though, comes as local officials are trying to help households swiftly rebuild in a tight housing market hampered by supply chain problems and soaring construction costs. There are already widespread concerns about the expense associated with rebuilding and under-insurance among residents displaced by the Marshall fire.
Gov. Jared Polis emphasized the tension in a late January letter to Louisville and Superior officials, acknowledging the “absolute importance of building back as quickly and affordably as possible” and the reality that a changing climate and booming growth in fire prone areas could lead to more catastrophic wildfires.
“There have been paths forged in places like Oregon, and consensus policy approaches produced that I hope we can draw from — while working to produce innovative solutions that work specifically for Colorado,” Polis wrote.
Oregon recently passed a $200 million prevention bill that requires wildfire mitigation building standards in high-risk areas. The measure, which previously faced opposition, came after wildfires claimed thousands of homes and killed at least nine people in 2020.
New homes that meet wildfire-resistant codes can be constructed for roughly the same cost as a typical home and have additional benefits, such as a longer lifecycle and less maintenance, according to a 2018 report from the Montana-based research group Headwaters Economics.
Still, Folsom said, homeowners are already facing steep markups in construction and labor costs. Some of those residents are finding their insurance policies won’t cover the actual cost of replacing their homes, he said.
Potential code changes contribute to an “overall increase in costs across the board that are driving these challenging situations for people,” Folsom said.
“Each and every one of them was a wake-up call”
Colorado is one of just eight states nationwide that don’t have a minimum building code, according to a 2021 document from the state’s Joint Budget Committee, with the rest having a required statewide code or one that can be adopted by local authorities.
Some states also provide flexibility for local governments. Maine’s code exempts towns with populations under 4,000, and Kansas empowers the state fire marshal to approve deviations from the code.
Studies in Colorado and California have found building requirements effective.
During the Fourmile Canyon fire just west of Boulder, for example, more than 80% of affected homes that went through a wildfire-mitigation process survived, compared to 63% of those that hadn’t, according to a 2013 state report.
In California, building requirements reduced by 40% the chance a building was lost during a wildfire, and reduced by 6% the chance a neighbor’s home went up in flames, according to a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper.
The fire mitigation requirements can have greater impact in densely packed suburbs where a spark can easily leap from home to home, ensnaring even those that have taken precautions against fire, experts said.
Without steps meant to make houses fire resistant, houses themselves are fuel for fire, said Char Miller, a wildfire expert and professor of environmental analysis and history at Pomona College in Claremont, California. Cars, utility wiring and the other trappings of subdivisions can feed the flames, he said.
During the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs, for example, only 48 of the destroyed homes were ignited directly from the wildfire, researchers with the National Institute of Standards and Technology found. Flames from one building to another caused “the cascading ignition” of the other 296 homes.
Tight spacing between homes also contributed to the catastrophic damage wrought by the Marshall fire, the state’s most destructive in terms of homes destroyed, said Ian Giammanco, lead research meteorologist for the Insurance Institute for Home Business and Safety. Landscape beds mulched with non-combustible material, including gravel, helped stop the fire in its tracks in some cases as it traveled near homes, he said.
Some cities and counties have adopted their own robust wildfire mitigation plans, and some lawmakers say it may be time to discuss a statewide effort.
There’s a financial benefit to adding a statewide building code, they say: The lack of statewide requirements cost the state 20 of 100 points in recent bids for $74 million in FEMA grant funding, including $4 million for Front Range wildfire mitigation efforts. No Colorado projects won awards.
The Marshall fire revealed that the state’s concept of the wildland-urban interface and its understanding of where homes are most at risk need to expand beyond a “house in the woods in western Jefferson County,” said state Sen. Chris Hansen, a Denver Democrat. The interface refers to the spaces where development brushes up against wildland.
“The state simply doesn’t have enough resources to do this by itself,” he said. “We need to take a science-based approach here and not one just based on certain deference for local control being able to solve this because it clearly hasn’t.”
State Sen. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican, said any proposal to establish a statewide building code would need support from local governments — and that he was reluctant to “dictate” rules to them.
“What would those codes be and would they be acceptable to local government?” he asked. “We’re such a local control state. We always have to make sure that’s OK.”
“There are certainly advantages,” he added, “but it might be difficult to get it done.”
In 2013, after the massive High Park fire, but before nearly 500 homes burned in Black Forest, a task force convened by then-Gov. John Hickenlooper recommended the state create some kind of model building code for high-risk areas, noting that the use of fire-safe materials and building codes could appreciably reduce risks. It also recommended developing a tool to identify high-fire-risk properties, now displayed in a Colorado Wildfire Risk Assessment Portal. Efforts at the time were “fragmented, sporadic and inconsistent,” the report said, and protecting neighborhoods would require collective action, not just that of individual homeowners.
The idea for a code was panned in the Legislature.
The task force ran up against opposition because it was told to look into actions the state government could take to address an issue that looks different on the local level, said Lisa Dale, a former assistant director in Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources who served as technical editor for the task force.
But even if the building code recommendation had been enacted, Dale doubts it would have made much difference against the Marshall fire, which was not concentrated in the forested mountainous areas typically thought of as most flammable.
“Wildfire was not seen as a risk for suburban Louisville,” said Dale, now a lecturer at Columbia University.
Climate change has upended the notion of what places are vulnerable to fire, just as Western states have spent considerable time and resources mapping zones where fire risk is high, she said. The risk maps developed a decade ago are now out of date and don’t reflect recent lessons about what contributes to fire risks that are swiftly changing, thanks in part to climate change, she said.
Colorado has been on the far end of the spectrum in terms of deference to local governments, with coastal states like California and Washington taking more action to regulate how and where homes are built, said Don Elliott, director of national land use consulting firm Clarion Associates.
The state has had many wildfires over the years, each of which should have been a wake up call, he added.
“When we talk about the wake-up call from the Marshall fire, what about the wake up call from the Waldo fire?” he said. “We don’t wake up.”
Decisions better kept at the local level
Builders and local officials say building codes developed at the municipal level more closely reflect the characteristics and financial wherewithal of a city or county.
“What is Colorado, the seventh-largest state?” said Mike Morgan, director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control. “Geographically that’s a lot of real estate to cover.”
Though the state lacks statutory authority, many local governments have adopted and enforce wildland-urban interface building codes, Morgan’s division said.
There are also practical concerns about adding a state-mandated code. That includes questions about how much the fire mitigation measures cost and how cash-strapped or small local governments could afford to enforce a new code.
Also, existing homes aren’t typically required to upgrade to new building codes unless they undergo a renovation or, for example, replace a roof. Retrofitting can be expensive. A pilot program for wildfire-prone parts of rural San Diego County in California set aside $40,000 per home for retrofits to make them more resistant to fire.
The state provides resources to help local governments, fire departments and homeowners’ associations prepare for wildfire, and the state recently set aside more than $55 million for various wildfire mitigation programs, Polis’s office said. Some local officials say additional funding or help training contractors and providing technical expertise would be more helpful than a state mandate.
Building codes for structures in high-risk areas have been the “800 pound gorilla in the room,” said David DelVecchio, president of the Colorado State Fire Chiefs’ Association. No one wants to talk about them, he said.
“It’s either a local governance issue, where the state doesn’t want to infringe on the local governments, or they just don’t want to address that because they know it’s going to be a battle,” DelVecchio said.
Still, he thinks attitudes on a code are shifting after the Marshall fire. Maybe, he said, it’s now just the “500 pound gorilla.”
Mowery, with the Community Wildfire Planning Center, said a sample code and other guidance documents from the state could also help communities not have to start from scratch creating their own, she said.
Wildfire risk could also be better integrated to development decisions, with evacuation routes and water availability considered before neighborhoods are built. While the state requires cities to develop master plans that consider wildfire risk, county plans don’t need to factor that into their visions around growth and land use, she said. More than one-fifth of Colorado counties with more than 20% of their residents living in moderate or high-risk areas where development meets wildland had no master plan available or did not include wildfire policies in it, according to a 2021 analysis by Mowery’s organization.
The National Fire Protection Association and the International Code Council invest heavily in creating building standards around wildfire mitigation that are revised every few years through a lengthy committee process, said Michele Steinberg, the association’s wildfire division director.
Nearly 200 municipalities and 26 Colorado counties already participate in a voluntary fire-mitigation program through the association, demonstrating widespread acknowledgment of wildfire risks, she said.
For meteorologist Giammanco, devastating wildfires provide a “window of time” to make changes.
“And so that’s kind of what we’re hoping we see, especially in the Colorado space,” he said. “Now’s the time that people want to have these good conversations and work together to see what actions could bring reduction in risk and vulnerability of our neighborhoods.”