Blazing summer sparks call for defensible space

Seasonal rains have brought a reprieve from the extreme fire danger that plagued most of Colorado earlier this summer. How temporary that reprieve will be, no one can accurately predict.

But one forecast doesn’t require much of a crystal ball. That is the fact that drought will again strike this region — in a month, a year or a decade. The question is what Coloradans will do to prepare for the next dangerous fire season, especially in what’s known as the urban-wildlands interface, where relatively high concentrations of rural homes bump up against forest and desert landscapes.

Almost 40 percent of new homes built in the United States in the past decade have been constructed in the urban-wildlands interface, according to Bloomberg news.

As The Daily Sentinel’s Dennis Webb highlighted in a series of articles beginning last Friday, many people who live in homes near wildlands have been thinning trees on their property and clearing brush to create a defensible space around their houses, should fire occur. Many began work before the most dangerous part of the fire season arrived. Others have started in response to news of the horrific fires on the Front Range this year.

Good for them. Taking defensive action before wildfires occur is one of the most sensible things Coloradans can do to prevent destruction from wildfires.

Additionally, as Webb’s article noted, there are grant programs available from the state, and in some localities, from local governments to help homeowners cover the cost of creating defensible space.

Homeowner’s insurance is another issue. The companies that will have to pay millions in insurance claims for the hundreds of homes charred in Colorado this year are not eager to keep paying those sorts of claims.

Already, the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association, a nonprofit trade group, is urging Colorado to adopt uniform building codes for homes built in the urban-wildife interface and to adopt enforceable regulations mandating that homeowers in those areas create defensible spaces.

However, even in states such as California that have adopted defensible-space mandates, there is little consistent enforcement, Bloomberg reported.

We’re not eager to see lawmakers in Colorado adopt extensive new regulations about where or how people may build on the edges of wildlands. Such laws would be costly to administer and would infringe on the building-oversight authority of local governments.

It does make sense, however, for the state to encourage consistent building codes for these areas to require such things as the use of nonflammable building materials.

Encouraging more homeowners to create defensible spaces around their houses is certainly necessary, even if government mandates along those lines aren’t effectively enforced where they have been adopted.

For cities, counties and fire districts with large numbers of homes in the urban-wildlife interface, the benefits are obvious. It costs a lot of money to fight wildfires, an estimated $3 billion a year nationwide. And that doesn’t include the risk to firefighters, law enforcement officers and others.

Most of those resources are devoted to areas where homes are threatened.

Even after a fire is controlled and eventually snuffed out, there are ongoing costs. Runoff from scorched areas can choke rivers and streams and endanger wildlife. It can also add significantly to the cost of treating water for municipal systems. Burned-out houses don’t add much to the property-tax equation. But they do present health and safety dangers that can linger for years.

For homeowners, the benefits of building with fire-resistant materials and protecting the space around the house should be equally obvious. Even if a home near wildlands is adequately insured — likely at high rates, following this year’s fire season — insurance can’t replace all of the personal items that can be lost in a fire. Nor can it prevent injury or loss of life.

Fire will continue to be a regular occurrence in Colorado, just as it has been for ages. But humans can do a better job of preparing for it. That should be the message of this year’s disastrous fire season.


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