Fire chiefs fearing disaster from wildfires where open space meets urban areas are joining lawmakers to push for a statewide board with power to define so-called wildland-urban interface danger zones and impose preventive building codes on local governments.
A bill for the mandatory codes board is set to be introduced this week by Sen. Lisa Cutter, a Littleton Democrat, but is already raising opposition from local-control advocates who are battling potential statewide impositions on multiple fronts, including affordable housing. Democratic supporters abandoned a similar idea introduced late in the 2022 legislative session after Republican opponents to the policy threatened to block other measures in protest.
Fire officials from Colorado Springs to Fairplay are lobbying hard for the uniform codes, citing the 2021 Marshall fire in Boulder County, the East Troublesome fire that swept through Grand County in 2020, and the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs as dire wake-up calls to fast-growing communities on the edge of wildfire-prone landscape.
“Fires aren’t jurisdictional. They cross borders,” said Colorado Springs Fire Chief Randy Royal, who is also an officer in the Colorado State Fire Chiefs.
Recent wildfires destroying hundreds of homes in suburban and exurban areas of Colorado have spread through embers blowing off wooden shake roofs, or down into excessive roof venting, Royal said. Uniform preventive building codes could outlaw shake roofs and limit vents, protecting firefighters, residents and property from blazes that explode on high winds.
“Wildfires are a huge problem, and we have to come at them with every tool we have. I’m taking all my cues from the fire chiefs,” said Cutter, lead sponsor of the bill that would create the “Wildfire Resiliency Code Board.”
“We can harden our homes,” Cutter said. “We obviously continue to build in the WUI, and we need to be responsible about that.”
Local governments who want to retain control over building code decisions will lobby hard against the bill, already registering their opposition and at the very least looking to soften the draft language.
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“We have a number of concerns with what’s being proposed,” said Heather Stauffer, legislative advocacy manager for the Colorado Municipal League, which lobbies at the Capitol for towns and cities.
“The needs of a community on the Front Range may not be the needs of another community in the mountains,” Stauffer said. “It’s appropriate for local governments to have input on these decisions.”
Gov. Jared Polis’ office indicated he could support the idea with some changes.
“The Governor’s team is working with the sponsors and stakeholders to ensure legislation fits with his goals of making Colorado safer and reducing home prices,” Polis’ office said, in a statement on the draft language.
Local governments also worry statewide codes would create expensive standards for homeowners and homebuilders, exacerbating housing shortages. They also complain the building code would represent an unfunded mandate on local authorities, who would have to inspect and enforce the rules.
Local officials might consider supporting a statewide board creating model codes that cities and counties could choose to adopt, Stauffer said. Negotiations have also floated the idea of a code board defining a “menu” of tighter codes that local governments could mix and match to suit their conditions.
Cutter rejects that idea out of hand.
“The menu idea won’t fly,” she said. “This is long overdue, to get on the same page.”
The other lead sponsors for the mandatory codes bill include Sen. Tony Exum, D-Colorado Springs, and Rep. Elizabeth Velasco, D-Glenwood Springs.
The code board legislation would:
- First require the appointed board to set the geographic boundaries of wildland-urban interface zones across the state where new codes would apply.
- Adopt minimum building and landscaping codes for local governments to pass, though cities and towns could make them tougher than the state minimum.
- Establish a petition process for local governments to appeal and modify the codes.
- Allow the governor to appoint 10 members of the board, the legislature to appoint 10 more members, and name three subject matter expert board members participating ex-officio.
The codes would apply to new residential buildings; how much renovation of an existing home would trigger a mandatory code update is still to be negotiated.
The fire chiefs’ association says members are ready to push back against local officials’ arguments that they understand the wildfire threat and will make changes.
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“Then why haven’t you done something already? Really simple question,” said Garry Briese, executive director of the Colorado State Fire Chiefs. “As a result of the inaction of local jurisdictions we have a statewide problem that doesn’t respect political boundaries, that is incredibly destructive, and something has to be done.”
The Marshall fire at the end of 2021 burned nearly 1,100 homes and caused more than $2 billion in damage as it swept east from Marshall Mesa through Superior and Louisville. Though a report on the fire’s origins is still pending, the wildfire was fanned by 100 mph winds that pushed embers across grassland and into subdivisions bordering open space.
East Troublesome in the fall of 2020 burned close to 200,000 acres and 366 houses, with $543 million in damage. Winds whipped embers over the Continental Divide, burning large portions of Rocky Mountain National Park and forcing evacuation of Estes Park before it was stopped in Beaver Meadows.
The Waldo Canyon fire destroyed about 350 homes and forced thousands to evacuate from western Colorado Springs, Woodland Park and Manitou Springs, causing $450 million in damage. It was followed the next year by the Black Forest fire in more wildland-urban terrain northeast of Colorado Springs, resulting in nearly 500 lost homes.
Colorado Springs enacted tough building codes after Waldo Canyon, including banning shake roofs, lowering the number of roof vents, moving decorative grasses and other flammable shrubs away from buildings, and more.
Many fire chiefs see the 2002 Hayman fire, which swept up from Lake George toward the southwest Denver metro area, as a marker for a new era in preparing for wildland-urban firefighting.
“If we had just started this after the Hayman fire, we wouldn’t be having this discussion today,” Briese said. “We would have fire resistant roofs, we’d have all sorts of other things. So here we are, 20 years after Hayman, trying to play catch up, because the residences in the WUI have exploded in the meantime. The problem has gotten geometrically bigger and more complicated by inaction.”
Uniform codes could help address other growing problems for Coloradans, including finding affordable insurance — or even any insurance policy at all — for homes that insurance companies say are indefensible from fire, bill advocates said.
Cutter cites studies showing that for every $1 spent on hardening homes and landscapes in the interface areas, between $4 and $8 in damage is prevented.
Slowing wildfires from hopping from home to home and getting out of control in one part of the state makes a difference hundreds of miles away, Cutter said, with implications not just for property damage but for air quality and other issues.
“If there’s a fire in Glenwood Springs,” she said, “we can’t breathe in Denver.”