In 2013, wildfires charred more than 4 million acres of the United States. Nineteen firefighters were killed in a blaze in Arizona that shifted unexpectedly, thousands were evacuated across the state of Colorado to avoid fires that ravaged the Colorado Springs area, and people across the nation watched, and worried, about where fire would spark next.
Over the past two years, Colorado has endured some of the worst wildfires in the state’s history, says Paul Cooke, director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control. It’s too early to tell if 2014 will be another catastrophic year for the state, but even in a normal year, Cooke says, Colorado can expect roughly 30 large wildfires that will destroy more than 100,000 acres and cost more than $41 million to suppress.
To address the problem, Colorado has set an ambitious goal to keep all fires within a 100-acre barrier this year “because once you cross that 100-acre barrier, then we’re looking at multiple days of fires, we’re starting to look at real dollars in terms of fire suppression costs, and every day that the fire burns there’s more of an opportunity for injuries, deaths, and property damage,” Cooke says. To help the state meet that goal, Colorado is adopting a variety of techniques ranging from mapping to educational programs designed to help prevent fires from starting and spreading.
A growing problem in Colorado is newly constructed homes and businesses near forests, structures that could quickly become fuel should a wildfire break out. These property owners are the first line of defense against wildfire, Cooke says, and need to take steps to prepare themselves and their property for wildfire. This has led to a campaign across the state to educate the population about the danger of wildfire and how individuals can mitigate the impact.
Cooke says the state is campaigning for “fire adaptive communities” that look beyond safeguarding individual properties and focus on building a “communitywide wildfire protection plan.” The strategy maps out buffer zones around the community, which ensures adequate ingress and egress for fire truck access and water supply. Colorado’s Division of Fire Prevention and Control has teamed up with the Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS) to create Community Wildfire Protection Plans, which bring together a local government authority, the local fire department, CSFS representatives, and nongovernmental partners to assess community risks and values, identify protection priorities, and establish fuel-treatment projects.
These community plans include a community risk analysis that considers fuel hazards, risk of wildfire, and community values to be protected both in the immediate vicinity and the surrounding area where potential fire spread poses a realistic threat. To provide further reference, these plans are made available to the public on the CSFS Web site to help them understand the risks to their area.
Along with the community plans, the CSFS has also created a Colorado Wildfire Risk Assessment Portal on its Web site. The tool was launched in March 2013 and allows the public to determine wildfire risk and where forest management actions can have the greatest impact at reducing that risk. It uses the geographic information system (GIS) to allow citizens to create maps of wildfire risk ratings for specific locations. (More on the GIS system later.)