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Professor studies past wildfires in order to prevent catastrophes

Research will inform policy debate about how to avoid future loss of property, life

5/23/2012
CU Denver Professor Lloyd Burton is studying the policy changes that follow massive wildfires


By Chris Casey | University Communications

DENVER - As this year's Hewlett and Lower North Fork fires show, the hills are already tinder dry and mountain residents are in for a long and dangerous summer.

Lloyd Burton, PhD, professor in the School of Public Affairs, University of Colorado Denver, is studying the aftermath of wildfire -- specifically whether government leaders make policy changes in the wake of devastating fires.

As more people move into the mountains and the climate becomes hotter and drier, Colorado can expect more devastating wildfires that will cause loss of property and potentially life as well.

Burton said the U.S. National Research Council has estimated that there will be a 200 to 400 percent increase in forest acreage lost to wildfires between now and mid-century. Human life and property is endangered because more people are moving into the wildland urban interface (WUI) even as the WUI becomes more fire-prone; in California, 40 percent of the housing stock is in the WUI, he said.

Colorado, which has no mandatory statewide WUI wildfire mitigation laws, saw three people killed in March's Lower North Fork fire, the state's first WUI resident wildfire deaths in recent memory.

"What I'm doing in my research, both domestically and internationally, is to study WUI wildfire mitigation law and policy before and after catastrophic fires," said Burton, who recently returned from a month of sabbatical field research in the Spanish state of Catalonia, preceded by another month studying the same phenomenon in the Australian state of Victoria. "Also, I am assessing how well policies and regulations on paper are actually being implemented on the ground."

Colorado focuses its statewide wildfire mitigation policies on planning and recommending effective WUI wildfire mitigation measures, leaving various regional and local jurisdictions to set and enforce regulations. Considering that a fire had lethal results this year -- and the fire season could be very active -- Burton will be watching to see if next year's Legislature may take action to assure consistent WUI wildfire mitigation measures at the state level.

"We've got such unevenness around the state in terms of jurisdictions -- some take it seriously and others not so much," Burton said. "If mitigation regulations can be brought to a higher level of consistency around the state -- whether that involves state law or not -- that can be a good thing because of the ever-increasing nature of the threat."

Regulations typically pertain to use of fire-resistent building materials and clearing of fire fuels from the perimeter of a home -- often referred to as creation of defensible space.

Southeastern Australia, Burton notes, is the world's most fire-prone landscape and therefore has some of the most stringent mitigation laws.

"In the state of Victoria, for instance, they use what's called the 10-30 rule: no significant fuel sources at all within 10 meters (about 30 feet) of a home, and no ladder fuels within 30 meters (about 100 feet)," he said. "Those distances vary with governmental regime and regulation."

As the 2010 Four Mile and this year's Lower North Fork fires show, many homes were saved by wildfire mitigation practices, but some residents still lost their homes even after taking precautions in terms of structural mitigation and defensible space.

"On average, research shows that structural mitigation and defensible space are among the most effective measures property owners can take against harm from a WUI wildfire, but nothing is certain, especially in an increasingly fire-prone environment," Burton said. Burton is co-director of the program concentration in Environmental Policy, Management and Law.

Historic fires in American cities, including San Francisco and Chicago, prompted officials to enact fire codes, inspections and other measures to prevent future catastrophes.

"They really brought down the loss of property and life from big fires in cities," Burton said. "We're not at that place with regard to fires in the WUI."

A forest's life cycle is naturally volatile: forest health is enhanced by occasional fires to clear off underbrush, to re-seed and to curb disease. So as people move into the WUI, they're moving into harm's way.

Burton views his work as an effort to raise awareness. Every new fire, he said, is a wake-up call.

"For me, this is research with a purpose," he said. "I'm trying to do what I can here to inform the policy debate about how we can try to avoid loss of life and property in the future ... It remains to be seen how many fires it will take for some degree of awakening to occur."

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Contact: christopher.casey@ucdenver.edu

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