Summit County firefighters: Black Forest burn area looked like home

Caddie Nath
A DC-10 Air Tanker drops fire retardant near home in the evening as the Black Forest Fire continues to burn out of control for a second straight day near Colorado Springs on Wednesday, June 12, 2013. The fire has consumed 11,500 acres. It has destroyed 92 homes and damaged others. The erratic fire has forced the evacuation of thousands of people. (AP Photo/BryanOller)
AP | fr81708 AP

Presenting a slideshow in front of the Summit Board of County Commissioners, firefighters Keith McMillan and Tim Caldwell flip to a picture of a single-family home surrounded by a neatly kept yard, few trees and featuring a stone wall on one side. It’s nearly obscured in a haze of smoke, but it’s still standing.

The 4,000-square-foot home next to it burned to the ground in the Black Forest fire that destroyed nearly 500 houses in June.

Local teams who responded to help fight the El Paso County blaze noticed a pattern in the neighborhoods affected by the fire: defensible space. The blaze destroyed entire neighborhoods in densely wooded locations where no mitigation work had been done but — as shown on a map of the burn area — skirted around communities that had created fire breaks.

“This mitigation, it does work and we’ve got a good start on it, but we can do a lot more,” said McMillan, who with Caldwell is part of the Red, White and Blue Fire Protection District. “I think it’s going to need a kick in the pants to say, ‘It does work, it could happen here and I’m going to do my part.’”

Fire officials say many of the areas that were destroyed in the blaze reminded them of communities in Summit County, such as neighborhoods in the Peak 7 area, which aerial photos show are situated in heavily forested locations with no protective space around the homes.

In a wildfire event, embers can travel up to a mile and ignite seemingly random homes, meaning defensible space must be implemented across the board if it is to be effective, Caldwell said.

“This is a community effort,” he said. “Even though your house may be awesome (in terms of mitigation) if your neighbor’s house isn’t a quarter mile away, that’s not going to help you out.”

Defensible space has long been a point of contention in Summit County. Many local homeowners resisted a government-led push to establish defensible space in 2009, frustrated that they were being asked to spend money cutting down the trees they’d once been told to protect and questioning whether it would even work. Through grants and public education, local elected officials and fire districts have been successful in overseeing mitigation efforts in a number of neighborhoods, particularly in the Upper Blue River Basin.

Many communities in the home-ruled town of Breckenridge have taken action to implement defensible space. The neighborhoods that are still at risk are primarily located in unincorporated Summit County, but the statutory county government can’t require defensible space on existing homes.

“We don’t have the authority to go and retroactively require defensible space,” Commissioner Dan Gibbs said. “There are a lot of areas that there are really challenges. … We’re revisiting some of our codes and land use authorities so we can look into the future to see what makes sense, what lessons are learned in other areas and how we can move forward.”

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