Scorched Summers: Living in the Forest

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Ten years ago, the Hayman Fire set a new record in the state for destruction, leveling 133 homes. But that didn’t deter people from building houses in fire-prone forests. An iNews investigative report calculated that around 100,000 people have moved into the 'red zone' since 2000.

For a long time, officials have urged mountain-dwellers to do more to protect themselves from fire. Today in our series, Scorched Summers, we look at what it takes to get homeowners to mitigate. And we talk with State Representative Cheri Gerou, chair of the Joint Budget Committee, about her effort to get more funding for wildfire mitigation on a larger scale.

Find our entire Scorched Summers series here

[Transcript of Megan Verlee's report]

Reporter Megan Verlee: The community of Perry Park, in Douglas County, is one of those idyllic, rural neighborhoods that hug foothills all along the Front Range. There are 700 homes here, tucked in among red rock ridges and ponderosa pines. Folks here are no strangers to fire.

Keith Worley: "The Hayman fire was expected to arrive in Perry Park within 24 hours when Perry Park was evacuated in 2002."

Reporter: Resident Keith Worley stands at Perry Park’s entrance. The fire never arrived, but Worley still remembers guiding fire crews through the neighborhood, as they mapped out their strategy for protecting homes.

Worley: "And they were using a kind of green, yellow, red..."

Reporter: Green homes might be saved, yellow were tougher, and red.. well Worley remembers one firefighter referring to those as 'historic.'

Worley: "And he’s going 'historic... yellow... green... yellow, green, green, historic.' And for him, the red meant, it’s history."

Reporter: Worley was involved that day because he’s a forester, and a consultant for the federal FireWise program. He works with communities in seven western states that want to be less vulnerable to wildfire. Back in 2002, Perry Park had just become one of Colorado’s first Firewise communities. Ten years later, there are only 42 in the state. Even in places like Perry Park, which has felt the wildfire threat directly, Worley says mitigation can be a tough sell.

Worley: "Why I won’t mitigate. Number one: I pay my taxes and when I dial 911 I expect the fire department to be here. Number two, I’ve got insurance, and so if this burns down I’m going just replace it. Then we get into the ‘I don’t believe in cutting trees, it’s bad for Bambi, the wildlife."

Reporter: That last argument really rubs Worley the wrong way. These ecosystems were shaped by fire. Take that away and he believes people have to pick up the slack. As he shows me around the community, we run into one of his converts, his neighbor Linda Jackson.

Linda Jackson: "At first it was, 'Cut a tree? Oh my god! Not a tree!' Cause you know, you move out here because you want your privacy."

Reporter: Once Jackson and her husband learned mitigation only required thinning the forest, not clear cutting, they got on board. But it’s a constant effort...

Jackson: "You know, every year it grows back and you’re like “no, no, no!” You want to try to go back and keep up with it. It really does make sense once you start doing it."

Reporter: And once you start, you’re not supposed to stop stop; cleaning gutters, tearing up brush, and always, always trying to think like a fire. Worley shows me around his house as an example. And it turns out even the Firewise guy has a few things that could use improvement.

Worley: "See this spot down here where I’ve got a wood board coming down to a spot where there’s some leaves? Typically a homeowner can figure out where the embers are going to accumulate by where the leaves and needles accumulate around their house."

Reporter: Right now this kind of mitigation is voluntary, but there are other forces trying to compel homeowners to care for their property. Insurance companies for one. Carole Walker is with the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association. She says the fires ten years ago were a wake-up call for her industry.

Carole Walker: "They’re doing more onsite inspections when they’re selling a policy and then upon renewal."

Reporter: Walker says insurance companies are focused on minimizing their risk with each individual policy. But they can’t be the only player in the effort to make living in the forests safer.

Walker: "If the entire community is doing the mitigation and focused on reducing the wildfire threat, that’s where we need to get to. And some of that comes from the insurance industry just providing that pocketbook incentive. But at the same time, we need to be looking at building codes."

Reporter: Many Colorado counties already are.

Dan Gibbs: "We do not approve new construction if it is not up to our defensible space, FireWise codes. We just do not."

Reporter: Dan Gibbs is a Summit County Commissioner. He says ten years of fires and beetle kill have focused attention on better design. What he worries about now are older communities -- built to less cautious standards. A year ago the town of Breckenridge tried to require all homeowners maintain defensible space around their houses... and learned a hard lesson.

Gibbs: "There was a huge backlash; people said, 'hey, not in my backyard. Government’s not going to tell me what to do.' And that was actually reversed, believe it or not."

Reporter: So Gibbs says it all goes back to personal responsibility; only homeowners can really take care of their own land. After a decade of trying to sell people on just that idea, Keith Worley, the Firewise consultant, still believes in it too. He just knows it isn’t easy.

Worley: "We in this business bemoan the years when there’s no smoke in the air and we can’t get anyone to show up for our classes or attend public meetings. Yeah, yeah, wet year, it’s a hard sell."

Reporter: So Worley is hoping that the devastating fires this year, like the ones in 2002, may build momentum for even more people in Colorado to step up their fire protections.