Building Forward Safer Where Communities Grow Into Wildfire Danger Zones
Boulder County, Colorado, is just the latest of a growing string of communities devastated when fires that might have started "wild" explode into urban infernos.
Click here to subscribe to my Sustain What dispatch. Community resilience is a core theme.
The prime focus around Boulder County, Colorado, after a devastating year-end inferno took out close to a thousand homes remains on response (hundreds of traumatized dislocated families need help), search (two people remain missing and are presumed dead) and investigation of the human cause. You can learn more via some great coverage I've linked to at the end of this post.
But given that countless communities in the West face a similar set of fire risk factors, it's not too soon to examine the most basic aspects of what happened and how to build forward safer.
One key reality already, starkly and sadly revealed, is that the old concept of the "wildland-urban interface," or "WUI," as a zone on a map where forests or grasses meet houses has to change. There's much that happened in Boulder County that is a chilling duplicate of what happened in October, 2017, in California's devastating, and more deadly, wind-driven Tubbs Fire.
Max Moritz, a University of California, Santa Barbara, scientist long focused on wildfire-human interactions, wrote a compelling analysis of the Tubbs tragedy for The Conversation that, almost word for word, applies to what just unfolded:
"Analogous to when a levee fails, after a wildfire manages to ignite homes along the wildland-urban interface, many homes farther inside the neighborhood can quickly become exposed. Depending on the building codes in place during their construction, these newly exposed structures may or may not be very fire-resistant. Their vulnerability to ignition can also be especially high if they are spaced closely together and the winds are strong, because that is when fire spread transitions to a structure-to-structure domino effect."
I reached out to some longtime analysts and practitioners working to foster communities' capacity to live with wildfire. I'll provide more perspectives in the coming days, along with my similar coverage related to the deadly tornado challenge elsewhere in the country.
First up is a Sustain What interview with Molly Mowery, who is the executive director of a young nonprofit organization called Community Wildfire Planning Center. For close to 20 years Mowery has been working nationwide helping communities look at the combustible landscapes around them, understand the evolving hazards and vulnerabilities, and act to cut fire risk before the worst happens.
Here's the YouTube video of our Sustain What chat earlier this week. You can read an edited transcript below.
A nurse seeks to spread joy after a devastating fire
Before we get to the interview, here’s an update on my previous dispatch on the Boulder County fires, which centered on the perspective, and remarkable photography, of a traveling surgical nurse, Wendy Cardona, whose team at Good Samaritan Medical Center watched the fire churn as they waited for new orders following a day helping transfer 55 critically-ill patients to safer hospitals. Cardona has launched a fundraising campaign, which she calls Project Joy.
Click here to donate and read her vision. Here’s a short excerpt from her call to action:
“I'd like us as a community to help those who have lost so much be able to find little bits of joy again after this tragedy. I want this campaign to offer the opportunity to those who have lost so much to be able to replace an item that would bring them joy, whether it be a yoga mat, favorite running shoes, headphones, a favorite anything that would bring a moment of joy as it once did before this tragedy. Joy is what has helped me through times where I felt I couldn't keep going. I see this as a moment where we as a community can help lift others up who have lost so much, many indeed all, and bring small measures of joy to them as method of healing.
100 % of all monies raised will go directly to victims of this tragedy and will be documented on @ridingingthewendywaves on IG. I will also post a ledger of how money is spent along with people's stories. If all contributions are not allocated by March 1st, the remaining balance will be donated to a victims’ relief fund designated by the towns of Superior and/or Louisville.”
Here's a video chat I just did with Wendy:
We were joined by Chelsea Vargas, one of Cardona’s medical teammates and Lisa Dale, a lecturer in sustainable development at Columbia University who has enormous experience shaping wildfire policy in the West, including Colorado. A glitch prevented another guest from joining but he'll be back. That's Brandon Clement, a gutsy and gifted storm chaser who’s been creating a vivid visual history of extreme-weather impacts – from the Marshall Fire through the recent tornado outbreak, a host of hurricanes and more.
Molly Mowery on adapting communities to fire
Andy Revkin - First of all, I hope you're safe and well. I'm sure you have friends and know who have faced terrible stresses.
Molly Mowery - Yes, thank you. I am fine. I'm about 27 miles south of the Marshall Fire, although for those of us that live in the area, we would have all known. There were multiple grass fires over the course of the week leading up to the Marshall Fire and the other fires that occurred. So the conditions were ripe, unfortunately, for what we saw culminated at the end of last week.
Andy Revkin - One thing I think is missed sometimes is that there's really a matter of chance. This fire could have swept in a different direction and we'd be talking about different communities being devastated and disrupted. The area of risk is wide, but when these events happen, they're kind of hyper local.
Molly Mowery - We do see some of these smaller fires have some of the biggest impacts in terms of property damage and lives lost, so it's not always a direct correlation between fire size and fire impacts.
Andy Revkin - Obviously it's too soon for any kind of analysis of why certain houses burned or didn't, but in Louisville, Colorado, there's one picture that gives you the possibility that not everything has to burn. [The image, from drone video shot by Brandon Clement, shows a single house sitting undamaged along an otherwise-charred street; via Twitter a neighbor said it had fire-resistant fiber-cement siding.]
Maybe you could just say why it's too soon to know and what you're seeing there?
From video shot by Brandon Clement, with permission
Molly Mowery - These are people's homes and lives and the entire situation is devastating for so many people. That said, we have learned a lot from previous fires. And I think this fire may present an opportunity for hopefully additional learning and awareness so we can continue to prevent this. It is very early, though, to draw any conclusions on why homes did or didn't burn. And I say that because having been involved in post-fire analysis or reading others, until someone is on the ground able to study some of those very local conditions and factors, it can be very difficult to draw too many conclusions.
And now, of course, our challenge is there's snow on the ground. So that potentially disrupted a lot of ability to look at some of those fine-grained details that may lead to a conclusion on what those factors were for ignition.
I think what we can say is that the footage confirms what we have seen many times, unfortunately, in California - the home-to-home ignition component. And we're very aware of these urban settings where there's higher density of homes and losses that occur when those embers get into a neighborhood and they begin to burn. And you know, the conditions are unfortunately set up for that home-to-home ignition unless there were very intentional ways to break that cycle.
Andy Revkin - So all it takes is one weak link in the chain and you can have a lot of combustion all of a sudden.
Molly Mowery - And in this case, historically this really wasn't seen as an area in Colorado that would have the same level of risk as other areas. What's interesting, though, is this isn't entirely unprecedented. Colorado Springs had one of their worst fires in terms of loss of life in 1950 in January. I think nine people died in that fire - a vegetation fire. We had a Super Bowl Sunday fire a few years ago in February.
I hate to say it this way, but it's not entirely unprecedented. It's shocking, but these conditions have existed in this state during certain times during dry winter periods.
Andy Revkin - And that area is pretty famous for these high downslope winds.
Molly Mowery - Exactly. And as you know, we got an inch or less of rain in six months preceding it. So it was really set up for a terrible situation.
Andy Revkin - Talk a little bit about what you do.
Molly Mowery - We focus on land-use planning - how can communities better plan for, through land-use tools, the wildland-urban interface, We may not be able to avoid all of these terrible situations and outcomes, but we can certainly plan for it. Through our research we’re raising awareness of what the WUI is.
Click to download this report co-written by Mowery
The wildland-urban interface - we need to think about it as a set of conditions as opposed to this place off in the woods or maybe more rural areas where homes would burn.
The wildland urban interface is anywhere that has the conditions set up for where a wildfire can ignite and sustain itself. And you know, unfortunately, now we need to also look at homes as fuel. It's not just trees that burn, it's the other urban fuels that we need to consider as part of our preparation.
Andy Revkin – My friend Stephen Pyne [an Arizona State historian of fire] calls this era the Pyrocene because we're sort of burning everything - fossil fuels, homes. The other day, in an email exchange, he was saying that in a situation like this, what we've done is we've moved a forest, meaning the wood, into very dense neighborhoods:
So we sort of have to think of Superior and these areas perhaps as the equivalent of a forest, so when that grassland fire comes to that edge, there's a lot of stuff there that can burn. It was the first time I thought about it that way. Obviously, it's not just wood. It's also automobiles, gasoline and propane tanks in the backyards and all kinds of things fire would like to get ahold of.
Molly Mowery - Right. It's really the continuity of fuels. It's just a different type of fuel. So [fire] moves from grass to homes or fences or decks. That's how our disasters are unfolding.
Andy Revkin - And again, you kind of have to work at every link in this chain, right? We talked about the chain of houses in a community, but you have climate change, so slowing climate change would be beneficial. You have invasive grasses, which are out there sopping up the rain during the wet spring and waiting to burn in the fall or winter. You have, as we were just saying, communities where you have very dense neighborhoods.
That sort of all-of-the-above problem feels like a really hard problem to get a community and/or governments to focus on.
Molly Mowery - It really is. We have to look at this in a twofold way to move forward. One is the immediate threat of wildland-urban interface fires. What can we do about it? And then meanwhile, on a parallel track, we have to look at climate change, adaptation and solutions. We have to face both problems at the same time. And we only have so many resources and capacities to do this. So we really have to be strategic in the way we tackle both.
Andy Revkin - One thing I think, you know, I've written about climate change since the 1980s, and I’ve tended to put it in the foreground. But one of the things I learned is about the inertia in the system, so even if somehow the world got onto a Paris [Agreement] emissions track, that doesn't do anything for wildfire risk for at least two or three decades - before you'd notice some signal of that. And that leads me personally to focus a lot of my reporting on resilience and vulnerability reduction, particularly.
Molly Mowery - It is so complicated. I think a microcosm of that is in our wildfire world where we have this perpetual question of, well, if high density residential neighborhoods or homes with that are tightly packed together burn so easily, why don't we build with these a lower density in mind, meaning the homes are more spaced out and there's greater setbacks so these homes don't threaten their neighbors, which you know from a loss prevention standpoint, sounds great. But we can never solve the climate problem if we're building so many more spaced out homes and lower density development patterns as a solution to prevent clear structure loss. So it's really trying to balance how we frame these solutions and consider so many moving parts to the conversation.
Andy Revkin - I'm glad that you're working at this from the standpoint of community advice and policy advice.
We turn back to the conditions that set the stage for disaster in Boulder County by looking at the region over time on Google Earth Engine's Time Lapse feature and at risk maps from the 2011 Boulder County Wildfire Protection Plan. I show her this video.
Here's Boulder, and here's Superior in 1985. So you see a big expansion of what had been Superior off into that area that was just grassland. This map is from the 2011 Boulder County Wildfire Protection Plan. It shows "conditional burn probability."
There's Superior again, in sort of a red zone. This was the development that sadly is gone. Those houses are gone. And I look back at that red zone on the 2011 map and I go, 'oh my god.'
I’ve dealt with this so much as a journalist, whether it's earthquake risk or tsunami risk or flooding. I call it "blah, blah, blah bang," where a lot of well-intentioned people come up with plans and do analysis and we get in harm's way anyway. So how do we go forward from here?
Molly Mowery - On a side note, it is personally quite interesting. I moved to Boulder in the late 1990’s and at that time, between Boulder and Denver, there really wasn't a lot of development. It's interesting to look back and now be at a point in my life where I can see how much change can occur, and urbanization, within a 20-year time span.
I always try to be optimistic. I appreciate that sometimes change feels slow, but truly, when we think about it in terms of decades, how much change actually occurs, we'll continue building in this country.
So the question becomes how can we start today to make more positive decisions that might cost a little bit more now as a proactive investment. But long term, this is our future.
When I look at this map, I think there's a second part of the story that doesn't get told: What's making these areas high hazard and how do we mitigate it.
My colleague Kelly Johnston and I have spent a lot of time trying to convey to communities that it's not just the hazard, but how do you mitigate that hazard? Can you mitigate it?
If you can't, maybe you really shouldn't build there, but so many times with wildfire, you can mitigate it. In this case, I suspect that it was red with those high-hazard grass areas and the open space that was there at the time of this map. But grasses can be mitigated now.
I don't want to make it sound like finger-pointing. It's just that we can look at this or any other wildfire hazard map and ask the type of mitigation that needs to occur. I think that should empower people. We have science to guide this. We have more we can do in the face of what's confronting us for the future.
Andy Revkin - If there's anything I can do going forward to help facilitate conversations with communities, I'm happy to help. The Columbia Climate School project I'm working on, the Initiative, is all about testing models for efficacy. If I just keep writing cover stories for magazines or the like and they don't do anything, they I don't feel like that's a job well done.
Thank you again for being here.
Two Boulder-area residents wrote excellent primers on the climatic and meteorological contexts of the fires:
A month of unprecedented U.S. weather disasters ends with Colorado fire catastrophe - by the meteorologist Bob Henson, Yale Climate Connections
The New West Under Climate Change: A Rampaging Winter Wildfire - by Tom Yulsman, a journalism professor at University of Colorado, Boulder, Discover Magazine
Wildland-Urban Interface: The Problem, Trends, & Solutions - a presentation by Kimiko Barnett of Headwaters Economics, who manages the Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire program that I first wrote about in 2017 for ProPublica.
Jack Cohen, now retired from a long U.S. Forest Service career in wildfire science and design, is still a vital voice pressing communities to design for fire so that houses are shelters more than a new source of fires' fuel. This statement in a 2014 paper by Cohen and others at the Forest Service is more important than ever: "Wildfires are inevitable, but the destruction of homes, ecosystems, and lives is not…. Overcoming perceptions of wildland urban interface fire disasters as a wildfire control problem rather than a home ignition problem, determined by home ignition conditions, will reduce home loss."
This is an excellent video:
Colorado Firestorm - What Happened, What Next
My initial webcast on the fire, with Morgan Bazilian, the director of the Payne Institute for Public Policy at the Colorado School of Mines
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A fire-resistant home need not be costlier
I can't think of a better closing image than this diagram from a 2018 report by the fire-focused folks at Headwaters Economics. Read the report here and pass it around to friends anywhere fire is a neighbor.