COLORADO SPRINGS — Standing atop a parched, grassy knoll in the shadow of Pikes Peak and in front of miles of earth scorched by the Waldo Canyon fire more than a decade ago, federal, state and local fire experts Wednesday called for more training and new approaches to fight the “public safety crisis” of wildfire in a growing state.
For many, the mile-wide wall of fire approaching the ridgeline bordering the Cedar Heights neighborhood in 2012 remains a vivid memory. Embers “the size of boxes” rained from the sky, Colorado Springs Fire Chief Randy Royal remembers. The flames destroyed 347 homes and killed two people, but stopped within feet of homes in Cedar Heights thanks, in part, to the mitigation work by the community.
But the risk of wildfire has increased in the past decade, with more homes being built in the area next to undeveloped forest and climate change bringing more intense fires to areas that were once not thought to be at risk.
“For years, we’ve viewed this fire problem that we have as being more of a natural resource event. And as we’ve watched the forest health deteriorate, as we’ve seen the changes in the weather, and as we watch the growth in to the more rural areas of Colorado and across our country, we have created a public safety crisis,” Mike Morgan, director of Colorado’s Division of Fire Prevention and Control said Wednesday.
More than 36,000 homes lie in wildfire-prone areas where development intermingles with wildland vegetation in Colorado Springs, which ranks as the largest wildland-urban interface in the state. Nationwide, that number has grown to 99 million people, or one-third of the U.S. population living in areas at risk of wildfire, yet most have no idea what dangers they face, federal experts say.
“We’re going to have to learn to live with fire in our country,” Morgan said. “We just have to learn ways to mitigate or lessen the likelihood or the severity of these events when they occur.”
Morgan joined U.S. Fire Administrator Lori Moore-Merrell and other fire experts to discuss the challenges in addressing climate change, drought-driven wildfires that are growing in intensity, size and destructiveness.
In the first three months of 2023, there have been more than 9,000 wildfires across the country, Moore-Merrell said. About 800 people have died in residential structure fires this year, and last year, there were more than 1.2 million structure fires, and 69,000 wildfires that burned more than 7.5 million acres, she said.
“The threat of catastrophic wildfire in America’s interface communities demands national attention. That’s why we’re here,” she said. “It demands a unified approach. Because our current approaches to wildfire mitigation and management do not match the scale of the problem.”
There’s a need for more training, experts said, explaining that methods used to extinguish structure fires are different from those used to fight flames along the wildland urban interface.
Most municipal firefighters lack the adequate training and equipment needed to fight fires efficiently and safely in the wildland urban interface, said Edward Kelly, president of the International Association of Firefighters, which represents 335,000 firefighters across the U.S. and Canada.
While most fire departments are responsible for fighting fires along the wildland urban interface, about 78% of them have unmet training needs, according to the latest U.S. Fire Administration report published earlier this year. Two-thirds of those departments lack sufficient wildland personal protective clothing.
The IAFF, in partnership with the U.S. Fire Administration’s National Fire Academy, will host a course to teach firefighters how to attack fires that spark near the border of urban and wooded areas.
Colorado’s Department of Public Safety requested $6.5 million to “meet increasing training and certification demands statewide and maintain a robust firefighter training and certification program,” according to a November 2022 budget document, but the Joint Budget Committee rejected the request in March.
The JBC rejected the request because the department was already receiving money to support training, some still unspent, and some local jurisdictions were already underway with similar training, said Rep. Shannon Bird, a Westminster Democrat who sits on the powerful panel.
“We were unable to increase, at this point in time, our ability to expand training for firefighters,” Morgan said. “We will be back asking for that. We understand there’s only so much to go around. But this is a problem. We have to invest in our local communities.”
Colorado’s firefighting corps has failed to keep up with the growing demand to fight wildfires. According to the U.S. Fire Administrator’s report, the wildland urban interface continues to grow by about 2 million acres per year.
The state needs about 1,085 more career firefighters and 1,100 volunteer firefighters in the next 12 to 18 months to address the growing demand of wildfire response, Morgan said.
The number of people interested in becoming firefighters is declining across the country, said Kevin Quinn, first vice chair of the National Volunteer Fire Council. Fire departments that normally receive thousands of applications a year are now receiving a few hundred.
Health risks associated with the job and long hours, mainly due to staffing shortages, make it hard to recruit and retain firefighters.
As numbers of interested applicants have fallen in the past three decades, the call volume to volunteer fire departments has tripled, Quinn said. The industry also struggles to recruit and retain women and people of color.
Only 11.6% of career firefighters were Hispanic or Latino, 8.5% were Black and 1.3% were Asian, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Women make up about 4% of career firefighters and 11% of volunteer firefighters, the National Fire Protection Agency reported in 2021.
Leaders also called for the need to implement building regulations that would protect growing communities on the edge of wildland.
Michele Steinberg, director of wildfire for the National Fire Protection Association, called for a universal code that would require all homes and businesses in the wildfire-prone areas to adhere to fire-resistant building standards.
“Unfortunately, time and time again, what we see is that communities rebuild in the same way in the same areas as those that burned to the ground,” Steinberg said. “Without a new approach, we’re destined to repeat history at our own peril against a fierce and unrelenting opponent. We won’t stop wildfires from occurring, but codes and standards are the means to better withstand and lessen impact in the wildland urban interface.”
The failure by local, state and federal governments to impose preventative building codes is increasing the fire problem, added Shane Ray, president of the National Fire Sprinkler Association.
“Codes and standards established through a consensus process are a minimum and they should not be picked apart in a political environment,” Ray said. “The more buildings built to an outdated or weakened code in the interface between the forest and the city, and where fire departments are understaffed, undertrained or lack resources, is increasing the fire problem in America.”
UPDATE: This story was updated at 11:05 a.m. on Thursday, April 20, 2023 with the latest number of career firefighters needed in Colorado from the Division of Fire Prevention and Control’s needs assessment survey.