High Park Fire Forum: When wildland fire hits home

People move to the mountains to be surrounded by woods, but that decision comes with a responsibility: Homeowners must be fire-wise.

“It’s very important to take responsibility for where you live and the environmental factors,” said Scott Golden, a forest specialist with Boulder County. “We need to learn to live with fire.”

Golden was one of three speakers at “The High Park Fire: When Wildland Fire Hits Home” hosted by the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery. The panel discussion on March 12 was the third of six public forums, each focusing on a different aspect of the fire. Joining Golden were Andrew Notbohm, a wildfire mitigation specialist with Boulder Land Use, and Mike Caggiano, research associate with the Center for Managing Wildland-Urban Interface Wildfire Risk at Colorado State University.

The panelists agreed that reducing structure ignitability plays a key role in the survival of homes during a wildland fire. Notbohm cited three primary sources of home ignition: Direct flame contact, radiant heat and burning embers or “firebrands.”

Notbohm said new findings in fire science show that the major sources of home ignition are firebrands. Embers can ignite homes by either direct contact, such as falling on a wooden deck or by indirect means. For example, an ember can catch fire to pine needles in gutters, spreading then to the house. Indirect home ignition can also be due to vehicles or other combustibles near the house.

“Having a non-combustible ring 3 to 5 feet around your house is one of the most important things you can do to protect your home,” Notbohm said.

“Then there’s the human behavior side and the small things,” said Notbohm. “Like the broom on the front porch or closing windows before you leave. It is situational awareness of living in the mountains.”

“It’s the small stuff that will catch a house on fire,” said Caggiano, who has seen railroad ties being used for landscaping become a home’s ignition source. “The firebrand issue is huge,” echoed Golden. “A little bird that built its nest under your eave can cause your house to burn.”

The “Be Ember Aware” program reminds homeowners to monitor where horizontal and vertical surfaces meet on a home. These junctures are prime targets for ember ignition. “We have great building codes for fire prevention, but you can be vulnerable in a wildland fire,” said Notbohm. “A fire can bypass protection during an ember storm.”

Golden, a resident of Stove Prairie in the High Park Fire burn area, stayed atop Mount Ethel and defended his home. “Because of the firebrands, I would have lost my house if I hadn’t been there,” he said. “The firebrands were unreal pelting down. If one ember had landed into a receptive fuel, I would have lost my home.”

Golden’s decision not to evacuate was based on his vast forestry experience as well as extensive preparations, including large areas of defensible space around his home. He had stock tanks filled with water for when the power was cut off. Additionally, he laid hose lines on susceptible areas and used soaked tarps for crawl spaces and potential fuels. During most of the fire, Golden roamed his property with a backpack sprayer, continually putting out lots of little fires and hot spots.

Golden also had a plan of escape should his “P\prepare, stay and defend” decision became untenable.

Creating and maintaining defensible space around a mountain home can be a factor in its survival during a wildland fire.

Caggiano reported, however, some surprising results from a study of home loss in the High Park Fire. The High Park Fire raged for three weeks in June 2012. By the time containment was achieved by multiple local, state and federal agencies, one person had been killed, 259 homes destroyed and more than 87,000 acres burned.

In 1998, Caggiano said that Larimer County passed regulations aimed at reducing wildfire hazards. These regulations specifically addressed defensible space and roofing/siding materials. However, in the High Park study of home loss, Caggiano said the results showed little difference in home loss for pre-1998 homes as compared to homes built under the new fire-wise regulations.

He cautioned, however, that the studies did not take into account a very important variable: The defensive actions taken by firefighters during the course of the fire. “If they can show up, firefighters can make a huge difference whether the house survives or is destroyed,” he said.

Moreover, research into home fire loss is limited by the few partially burned homes available for study. Notbohm said most homes that catch fire are ultimately destroyed.

At the end of the day, the panelists said mountain residents must accept the fact of wildland fires.

“In order to dramatically increase the likelihood of a house surviving fire, you would need a fire engine in front of that house,” Caggiano said.

Notbohm agreed, stating that even with excellent fire prevention steps, one can lose a home under extreme fire conditions.

“We need to learn to live with fire,” Golden said. “We need to adapt to the environment already here, instead of trying to change that environment.”

The next forum, “Recovery,” will be held at the museum at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 9. Each forum is open to the public and free of charge. For more information, go to fcmod.org. The forums will also be aired on Fort Collins City Cable on channel 14.

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