Who’s to blame for homes lost to wildfire? Report says you don’t have to look far

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(Photo: Courtesy of Alex Chambers)

The story of the Black Forest Fire has become an all-to-familiar one in Colorado: a hot, windy spring day, a small fire that roars to inferno-strength in the span of a few minutes, forcing residents to flee in smoke and confusion, fire crews caught between heroism and helplessness.

When the flames finally died down and the damage was counted, 486 homes had been destroyed and two residents killed.

The blaze that started on June 11th, 2013, was the most destructive in state history, breaking a record set only a year early by the Waldo Canyon fire.

Now a new report from the nonprofit Pikes Peak Wildfire Prevention Partners lays much of the blame for all that damage squarely on those who lost the most: the homeowners.

After reviewing damage on the ground and surveying dozens of the firefighters who worked on the blaze, the report concludes that a lack of mitigation efforts by many property owners allowed the fire to grow so large it overcame the defenses of even some well-prepared properties.

"Probably the biggest thing that we discovered was that a lot of people just really don't know and understand how well a property needs to be mitigated," forester Keith Worley, who helped oversee the research, says.

Firefighters surveyed for the report described their response as "sad" and "frustrated" when they encountered homes where little had been done to prepare for a possible wildfire.

And they noted that even at properties where homeowners had obviously done some mitigation efforts, like tree clearing, they often left other hazards like woodpiles or flammable mulch near their houses.

“The property was mitigated but then the mulch caught fire and extended to the structures,” one firefighter recalls. “When the homeowners came back in they replaced the burned mulch with new mulch. We advised them that that was a poor idea but they 'liked the look.'"

The report recommends that state and local governments become more active in requiring new developments incorporate non-flammable building materials and engage in ongoing mitigation measures.

The authors of the report also float the idea of requiring fire-safe practices for existing homes, something some jurisdictions in other parts of the country do already.

"It’s treated very much like a weed ordinance," Larkspur Fire Marshal Randy Johnson explains. “They’ll come in, they’ll look at the property, they’ll say, you either do or you do not meet the mitigation requirements that we have in place, you have X amount of time to get it cleaned up. "

State lawmakers are considering a number of bills related to wildfire this session but none go as far as what the report proposes.

Governor Hickenlooper's office says he has received the report and is reviewing it.