by Amy Vaerewyck
Wildfire experts know how to minimize the loss of life and property to wildfire: structural mitigation and defensible space—measures like fire-resistant buildings, regulated fuel sources and controlled burns.
So, why—in many places in Colorado and throughout the U.S.—is wildfire mitigation not practiced?
This is the question plaguing many victims of the recent High Park, Waldo and Flagstaff fires along Colorado's Front Range, and it’s one that Lloyd Burton, PhD, is trying to answer. A professor in the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Affairs, Burton wants to help make the “wilderness urban interface” (WUI—pronounced “woo-ey”) a safer place to live. Unfortunately, it’s getting less safe all the time. Climate change is leading to hotter and drier conditions, Burton said, and more and more people are moving to the WUI—a dangerous combination of circumstances.
“It looks like this summer we’re in for a pretty bad fire season,” Burton said. “I hope we can prevent the loss of life.”
A co-director of the School of Public Affairs’ program concentration in Environmental Policy, Management and Law, Burton has been poring over legislative documents and traveling around the world to study how governments and communities deal with wildfires. His research shows that it usually takes a catastrophic fire for significant fire mitigation laws to make their way onto the books:
- Boulder County redoubled its wildfire mitigation oversight practices in the WUI after the 2010 Fourmile Canyon Fire, which burned more than 6,000 acres and destroyed 169 homes.
- California witnessed the largest peace-time evacuation in U.S. history during the 2007 wildfires and mandates WUI wildfire mitigation at the state level.
- The state of Victoria in southeastern Australia—the world's most fire-prone landscape—initiated a public buy-back program for homes destroyed in ultra-hazardous environments, which then become no-go zones for any future residential development.
- The Catalonia region of Spain, which has suffered many devastating wildfires, employs more than 400 rural agents to proactively and preventatively enforce WUI wildfire mitigation laws.
Will Colorado follow California’s lead and pass state legislation to mandate WUI wildfire mitigation?
With one confirmed death in the High Park Fire and three in the Lower North Fork Fire in March —the first civilian wildfire fatalities since 1999—Burton is watching to see if Coloradans will enact new state legislation on WUI wildfire mitigation.
“We in Colorado need to have a close look at what works [in fire mitigation] and have a public conversation about the extent to which we are willing to use heightened government authority to implement these proven effective methods,” Burton said.
“Property and lives are being lost that perhaps need not have been. We need to know why measures of proven effectiveness aren’t being implemented more frequently.”
Burton wants the media to play a role in helping citizens and communities make these decisions. Currently, he said, news coverage most often focuses on how a fire started and how it’s being extinguished. In addition to footage of culprits, victims and aerial water drops, Burton wants stations to report on the larger issue of wildfire mitigation. He’d like to see investigations of land use management practices, some of which actually increase wildfire danger, and how we can change those practices to reduce the loss of homes and lives.
Having lived in the WUI for half his life, Burton understands the desire to be close to nature. However, he also knows that nature doesn’t always do what we want it to do.
“Earthquakes, floods and wildfires are not disasters; they’re natural occurrences,” he said. “What makes them disasters is us being there.”