What Coloradans can do as state becomes more prone to suburban wildfires

Matt Whittaker

In this aerial view, burned homes sit in a neighborhood decimated by the Marshall Fire, the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history.(Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)

By Matt Whittaker / NewsBreak Denver

(Louisville, Colo.) For Front Range climate scientist Lauren Gifford, the Marshall Fire that destroyed more than 1,000 houses about 20 miles northeast of Denver literally brought her work home.

"The fire came within a few blocks of my house," said Gifford, who lives in Louisville and studies global climate change policy as a postdoctoral research associate with the University of Arizona. That was close enough for ash to blow inside her home, where she lives with her husband, 4-year-old child and cat.

As Gifford and thousands of others in Louisville, Superior and unincorporated Boulder County assess the damage from Colorado's most destructive fire, they face the prospect that the blaze may not be the last for suburban areas where the plains meet the mountains.

That raises questions about future fire mitigation efforts and whether local structures can be made more fire resistant.

Why was this fire so destructive?

Fires in the plains ecosystem in Boulder County are common as grass and shrubs produce a lot of dry fuel easily ignited by lightning or, more commonly, human-caused combustion, said Michael Kerwin, director of environmental science and geology programs at the University of Denver. 

Even before humans, the area burned regularly because of lightning strikes. Long-term droughts, such as the area is experiencing, have been recorded. And wind gusts around 100 miles per hour coming down from the mountains to the plains are also not uncommon in December and January.

What is uncommon at this time of the year is a lack of snow that would have prevented the fire. Climate change has raised temperatures that magnify drought conditions, leaving the Front Range barren of snow in late December. 

"Had there been even an inch of snow on the ground, that fire doesn't happen," Kerwin said.

A key factor in the Marshall Fire is the expanding wildland-urban interface, said Robert Grey, an expert in wildfire detection technology with South Korean company Alchera. 

That’s the transition zone between unoccupied land and human development, says the U.S. Fire Administration, which estimates 46 million homes in 70,000 communities in the United States are at risk for such fires. 

In Colorado in 2017, nearly 3 million people, or about half of the state's population at the time, lived in the wildland-urban interface, according to the Colorado State Forest Service. 

“No trees are needed," said Ulrich Salzgeber, chair of the Colorado Association of Realtors' Colorado Project Wildfire. 

"Embers fly in the wind, and every bit of land between Wyoming and New Mexico is part of the wildland-urban interface, which is where wildfires can start easily."

What can Coloradans do about climate change?

While he doesn't think blazes as destructive as the Marshall Fire will become a common occurrence, Kerwin isn't optimistic suburban wildfires can be totally prevented as warmer and drier conditions become more prevalent.

"The grassland is going to be ready to burn again," he said.

While voting for politicians who take climate change seriously, driving less and eating local are all valid individual actions, they probably aren't enough, he said.

"This feels bigger than me or you," Kerwin said. "We are so far down the pathway to having an unstable climate system it's difficult to see small changes adding up."

Gifford agrees, saying individual behavior isn't what caused the Marshall Fire and victims should not be blamed. Instead, people need to try to change the systemic and institutional problems that create and perpetuate climate change, she said.

To combat climate change, investing in renewable energy infrastructure and technology to remove carbon dioxide from the air are key steps, as is eliminating subsidies for the fossil fuel industry, she said.

Under pressure from environmentalists and investors as renewable energy gets cheaper and proliferates, the oil and gas industry has been taking some steps to reduce its own emissions. But critics say it's not enough while the products fossil fuel companies sell continue to contribute to a warming planet. 

"While some oil and gas companies have taken steps to support efforts to combat climate change, the industry as a whole could play a much more significant role through its engineering capabilities, financial resources and project-management expertise," the International Energy Agency said in 2020.

How can Coloradans protect their homes?

With the conditions ripe for more grassland wildfires near homes along the Front Range, there are some things that residents can do to prepare for the next fire.

A shift from highly flammable suburban residential construction with wood siding and wooden framing could help, Kerwin said. Coloradans in mountain communities have been building with materials such as concrete siding and metal roofing for at least two decades, he said.

"As we build back, we need to build back safer,"  said Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association. "We need to look at buildings with fire-resistant construction materials and landscape with fire-resistant plants."

As a resource, she points to Wildfire Partners, a Boulder County wildfire mitigation program that helps people identify their property’s fire vulnerabilities and provides financial mitigation assistance.

Amy Bach, executive director of United Policyholders, a consumer advocacy group based in San Francisco, predicts homeowners will rebuild using non-combustible materials like insulated concrete forms with rebar in them. 

According to the Colorado Association of Realtors, measures people can take to make their homes fire resistant include:

  • Adding a residential fire sprinkler systems
  • Using gutter guards or screens to protect the roof
  • Using non-combustible fencing
  • Keeping vegetation away from windows.

"Fireproof building materials, wildfire-focused urban and suburban development, fuel reduction, prescribed burning measures, and more are being done all over the world to prevent wildfire," Grey said.

NewsBreak Denver news manager Sara Hansen contributed to this report.

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Matt Whittaker writes about natural resources industries, including oil and gas, mining, renewable energy, agriculture and cannabis. He's been based in the Denver metro area since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter @mattswhittaker.

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