Colorado’s 2012 WUI Fires & Changing WUI Landscape

One of the many homes destroyed by the High Park Fire. It’s interesting to note that this home was built of fire-resistant construction and had defensible space around it. The cause of the ignition: overstuffed furniture left on the deck. Photo courtesy Erik Litzenberg

Like most states, Colorado is experiencing significant growth within the wildland/urban interface (WUI), which is changing how fires affect both citizens and firefighters. Colorado State University researchers predict that by the year 2030, the size of Colorado’s WUI will have increased from 715,500 acres in 2000 to 2,616,400 acres—an increase of 300%—and the number of homes within the Colorado WUI will have increased by 240% (from 300,000 to 720,000).

Before 2000, large WUI fires were rare in Colorado. The Black Tiger Fire in 1989 was the first in which significant home loss (44 homes were destroyed) was recorded. The Buffalo Creek Fire of 1996 was the biggest WUI fire in Colorado at the time, as it was the first fire in Colorado to burn more than 10,000 acres in recorded history.

By contrast, there were three fires that burned more than 10,000 acres in 2000 and six in 2002, when 10 WUI fires destroyed multiple structures for the first time. During that 2002 season, the 137,760-acre Hayman Fire destroyed 133 homes, replacing the Black Tiger and the Buffalo Creek fires as the most destructive fire in Colorado history, both in terms of acreage burned and homes destroyed.

But all existing records were challenged last year. On March 26, 2012, the Lower North Fork Fire started near Conifer. More than 4,000 acres burned, three lives were lost and many homes were destroyed.

In June, the conflagrations intensified. On June 9, the High Park Fire started near Fort Collins, burning 87,250 acres, which made it the second largest fire in Colorado history. The total number of homes lost reached 259, which also made the fire (at the time) the most destructive in terms of homes lost.

On June 23, the Waldo Canyon Fire started near Colorado Springs. The final statistics for this fire: 18,247 acres burned, 32,000 people evacuated, 346 homes destroyed and two lives lost. The Waldo Canyon Fire quickly replaced the High Park Fire as the most destructive in Colorado history.

Other large fires throughout Colorado during the summer months include the Weber, Pine Ridge and Last Chance fires. In all, 2012 was one of the most destructive years ever for the state of Colorado. In this article, I’ll discuss some of the contributing factors that shaped Colorado’s unparalleled fire season, as well as key lessons learned.

Colorado’s Common Denominators
There were a number of common denominators that existed before and during most of the Colorado fires in 2012, and which tend to apply to large fires in general.

  1. Weather and fuel characteristics contributed to the severity of the fires. After an extended period of drought, the fuels were dry and weather conditions were extreme. In most cases, red flag warnings had been issued, energy release components were setting near-record highs, and fuel moistures were measured at levels that were lower than were seen in the past. Further, Deputy Chief Steven Dubay from the Colorado Springs Fire Department stated that 65-mph outflow winds, generated by the collapse of a thunder head, caused the Waldo Canyon Fire to grow by approximately 10,000 acres in four hours, contributing to the majority of the homes lost during that fire.
  2. Preparedness efforts, if done at all, had been compromised. Experience has shown that preparedness efforts can help, especially if all recommendations are followed. Chief Tom Demint of the Poudre Fire Authority stated that before 2012, his department hadn’t lost a home to a WUI fire. The first home lost during the High Park Fire was of stucco construction and had fuel mitigation efforts completed around the house. Unfortunately, furniture on a wood deck provided both an ignition point and an avenue through which flames could extend into the interior, ultimately destroying the home.
  3. Homes in the Waldo Canyon Fire were ignited due to exposed decks, shake roof shingles and cedar fencing attached to homes.
  4. The proximity of the homes in areas of Colorado Springs verged on urban rather than WUI environs, which caused an urban conflagration. Homes were ignited due to their proximity to other homes, even if preparedness efforts had been taken.   

A Success Story
Although much of the news stemming from the 2012 Colorado wildfires was anything but pleasant, at least one fire can be cited as an example of success due to past lessons learned. The Flagstaff Fire, which started near Boulder on June 26, was mitigated by preplanning efforts.

Those efforts stemmed from the 2010 Fourmile Fire. Assistant Chief Don Whittemore from the Rocky Mountain Fire District in Boulder recalls that the Fourmile Fire was not only a “surprise” event, it was also the first to which the Boulder County Type 3 Incident Management Team (BC IMT3) responded. To help mitigate future incidents and prevent further “surprises,” between 2010 and 2012, residents and fire districts worked to strengthen their preparedness and response. The result: The Flagstaff Fire was preplanned and the BC IMT3 was more experienced. In other words, the Fourmile Fire exceeded the experience levels of the initial responders, but the Flagstaff Fire did not, due to the past experience and knowledge they had gained.

In 2012, the BC IMT3 assumed command three times faster, air resources were engaged within 30 minutes (vs. 8 hours in 2010), and there were little to no problems during transition to a higher-level IMT.

Additionally, during many of the 2012 fires, pre-positioning of aircraft and interagency relationships made a big difference. Air resources were engaged quickly in the High Park, Flagstaff and Waldo Canyon fires, and were essential to firefighting efforts.

Lessons Learned
Overall, the 2012 Colorado conflagrations were extreme, intense and required more resources than any other previous fire season. As a result, many lessons were learned that can help all fire departments keep themselves and their communities safe.

  • Weather patterns are becoming increasingly more extreme as fuels become dryer and more volatile. Pay attention to red flag warnings, and monitor weather conditions on a daily basis (at minimum). Prepare your fire department and community to respond appropriately.
  • Fire can start anywhere. The Flagstaff Fire started in city open space. The Waldo Canyon Fire started in the Pike National Forest, and extended into Colorado Springs. Further, homes became exposures, and the fire can spread from structure to structure despite the lack of natural fuels to support fire spread.
  • Mitigation works. In most cases, homeowners who had made efforts, such as following the Ready, Set, Go! Guidelines, ( had the best chance for home survival. Chief Dubay predicted that enforcement of codes and standards would be strengthened as the communities that were destroyed around Colorado Springs were rebuilt, since they could see firsthand the benefits of 10-plus years of active mitigation efforts. Regardless, all recommendations should be followed, including those related to defensible space, building materials and proximity to natural and human-made fuels.
  • Be prepared for the human component. First, understand that there’s always potential for responders to be affected by a WUI fire. In many of the Colorado fires, responders’ homes were destroyed. Responders who are affected should be allowed to re-prioritize, and should not be expected to provide routine response. Second, evacuations and emergencies cause emotional reactions. Responders should be prepared for pressures that they aren’t normally accustomed to handling.
  • Relationships help in the long run. Fire departments must maintain relationships with other responders, elected officials and members of the community. Response to the Flagstaff Fire was made more efficient through the regular preparation by the BC IMT3 since the Fourmile Fire. During the Waldo Canyon Fire, it was predicted that the evacuations were causing an effect on the economy equal to many millions of dollars a day. The pressures put upon emergency responders were lessened by the trust that the community and elected officials had in their fire department members and their capabilities.

A Final Word
The 2012 Colorado fires are indicative of a worsening trend that’s affecting all residents in the WUI, not just those in Colorado.  Fortunately, the fires were indicative of another trend: We seem to be learning from our successes and failures, and are becoming better equipped and prepared to safely and efficiently respond to WUI fires.

I recently visited the areas affected by these fires and noticed evidence of another commonality: resiliency. Grasses were growing where there were only the scars of burns a short time ago; community groups were out and about, removing debris, replanting and rehabilitating trails; and neighborhoods were in various states of rebuilding.

Last but not least, in Fort Collins, Boulder and Colorado Springs, we spotted the literal signs of recovery: “Thank You Firefighters” signs were hung throughout the communities in honor of all those who responded during this series of conflagrations. With the support of the community, the right resources and the ability to learn from past experiences, the fire service as a whole will be in position to conquer just about anything the WUI can throw at us.

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November 2017
Volume 12, Issue 11