New homes in eastern Boulder County would be required to meet tougher fire-resistant construction requirements under proposed changes sparked by the disastrous Marshall fire.
Members of Boulder County’s Board of Review outlined their plan at a public meeting Wednesday, focusing on the grassy flatlands of the county that have not seen many devastating wildfires but are now at risk as fires grow hotter and faster in a drought-stricken West.
The proposed requirements, which will be presented to county commissioners next month for final approval, include class-A roofing that reduces the likelihood that embers ignite the interior of a home. They also call for the use of ember-resistant roof venting, noncombustible gutters and at least 3 feet of space between the home and any combustible material, such as a wooden fence or shrubs.
The updates to the county’s fire-resistant building code mirror temporary rules put in place after the Marshall fire, and would make those rules permanent. The new policy would not apply to existing homes.
The county has paused issuing permits for new homes or residents planning to rebuild homes until June, unless they agree to follow the temporary building rules now in place.
Fire-resistant codes have long been required for homeowners in the foothills, where the county has focused its wildfire mitigation efforts. The proposals for the eastern area of the county are not as stringent as those required in the foothills, but are still effective, proponents say.
They mark an “immediate first step” to help prevent another tragedy, like the Marshall fire, said Ron Flax, Boulder County’s deputy director of community planning and permitting.
“The Marshall fire has given our community an extraordinarily painful lesson in some of the wildfire hazards of the eastern portion of Boulder County, the grasslands of the plains,” Flax said, explaining that the proposed updates could help “reduce the likelihood of a similar event causing such a widespread tragedy.”
In crafting these requirements, Flax said the county made an effort to suggest requirements that would not “overly burden” homeowners with higher construction costs.
Some of the decking materials that would be prohibited under the requirements, he said, are more expensive than those permitted.
The Marshall fire destroyed more than 1,000 homes and buildings collectively worth more than $513 million. Windblown embers carried from the grasslands and from one burning home to another contributed to the devastation, Flax said.
The proposed requirements would help reduce the cascading effect that overwhelmed firefighters Dec. 30 in their efforts to extinguish the rapidly spreading flames, he said.
“We were trying to choose those measures that would have a significant impact in terms of protecting homes from ember intrusion but also making sure we were extraordinarily sensitive to not putting additional requirements … that would increase the fundamental cost of construction,” he said.
Due to supply and labor shortages, some builders estimate it could take years for homeowners to rebuild homes from scratch. But Flax said most materials that would be required under the code are readily available.
Alex Gore, an architect for a building company along the Front Range, expressed concerns that some of the requirements, on top of inflation, would significantly add to the cost to rebuild.
“While protections are necessary and we should do the right thing, let’s not add on to the burden if it is unclear that it’s going to help,” Gore said.
Amy Aschenbrenner, a Boulder native and vice president of governmental affairs of BOLO Realtors, expressed similar concerns.
“I am excited and overjoyed at seeing the growth in Boulder County,” she said. “But I’m afraid that we are creating Boulder County as an elite area to live.”
Colorado, a home-rule state, doesn’t have a statewide fire-resistant construction requirement, leaving communities to adopt their own policies. Some critics say now is the time for a change, particularly as Colorado gets hotter, drier and more populous.