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Flames carried by wind consume grasses along Coalton Road, east of McCaslin Boulevard, Superior, CO. Tuesday, December 30, 2021. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Newly constructed homes in the eastern flatlands of unincorporated Boulder County must meet stricter fire-resistant requirements after Boulder County commissioners voted to approve changes to the county’s building code Thursday.

Commissioners unanimously voted to adopt amendments that aimed to protect homes from fire in the grassy plains of the county that have not seen many devastating wildfires but are now at risk as fire seasons grow longer and become more devastating because of climate change. 

“We’re in a different reality now. It’s so critical we learn from these things and I think this code is a proactive, preventive way to do things,” Commissioner Matt Jones said. 

Building permits submitted on or after June 6 must meet the new requirements. Existing homeowners are not required to make any changes.

Under the new requirements, which were sparked by the disastrous Marshall fire, new homes, garages and sheds must use ember-resistant roof venting, noncombustible gutters and at least 3 feet of space between the home and any combustible material, such as wooden fence or shrubs. Homes must also use class-A roofing that reduces the likelihood that embers ignite the interior of a home. 

Unlike in the mountainous, forested part of the county where a dense stand of burning trees can ignite homes, windborne embers become the “hardest to manage” in the grassy plains, Ron Flax, deputy director of community planning and permitting for the county said.

During the Marshall fire, U.S. 36 proved ineffective in halting the fire’s advance, highlighting the extreme threat that embers pose. The fire destroyed more than 1,000 homes and buildings

“We know that we are going to have grass fires again. The question is: what do we do to increase the likelihood that similar events are not going to cause the same level of catastrophe that (the Marshall fire) caused?” Flax said. 

County staff conducted a survey of building material costs from local suppliers in February, which showed that homeowners could save money in many instances by buying ignition-resistant materials, Abby Silver, community planning and permitting wildfire specialist for the county, said. 

Many of the fire-resistant materials required under the new codes are more durable and have a longer life cycle, she added. 

For years, strict fire-resistant requirements were in place for houses in the foothills of unincorporated Boulder County. The new requirements, which are similar but less stringent than those required in the foothills, apply to homes built in unincorporated eastern Boulder County and do not apply to any cities or towns. 

No residents presented concerns or questions about the requirements during the public comment portion of the meeting.

The adoption of new requirements comes after a statewide measure to impose stiffer construction standards for homes built in wildfire-prone parts of Colorado failed in the Senate earlier this week, leaving the issue up to local jurisdictions to regulate. 

The statewide proposal would have created a board tasked with developing statewide building standards homes nestled along the edge of forestland. 

“My hope is that by Boulder County taking this action that more counties that are here on the plains — who never thought that they would have this kind of incredible destruction — will follow us, and maybe this is a pathbreaking action of ours that can set a new standard and perhaps encourage the legislature to take the step that they need to take,” Commissioner Claire Levy said. 

“This is something we all need to do together to keep each other safe, protect firefighters and keep costs down.”

Olivia Prentzel covers breaking news and a wide range of other important issues impacting Coloradans for The Colorado Sun, where she has been a staff writer since 2021. At The Sun, she has covered wildfires, criminal justice, the environment,...