Colorado is facing the problem of wildfires head on using the tools of community outreach, technology, and legislation.
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.)
Along with the public viewer, the portal also has a professional viewer available to planners for the state, Fire Protection Districts, and local government. This customized portal allows users to create maps and detailed risk summary reports that include risk statistics for defined project areas and maps, charts, tables, and photos that describe those areas.
All of these factors play into the emphasis on fire prevention in the state through community outreach, Cooke says. “We’re really focused on a significant effort to campaign to educate our population about the impacts of wildfire and what individuals can do to play their part and reduce the impact.”
Exploring Technology Options
Colorado is exploring technological options to detect wildfires earlier and provide accurate information to responders quickly. “Anywhere in the western states, you have a wildfire…you get a report of smoke and you spend a lot of time chasing smoke,” Cooke explains. “What we want to do is use technology so we can identify where that smoke’s coming from, what kind of fire you have, what’s the best way to get into it, and what resources you’re going to need to contain it so that you can make good decisions right from the get-go.”
One option on the table is using manned aircraft to fly over an area after a band of lightning has gone through to look for heat signals using infrared scanners. Traditionally, pilots have been sent out to look for signs of smoke, but with today’s technology they can look for signs of heat that could cause a wildfire and can quickly provide fire source information to the fire department for suppression.
Colorado had initially looked at using unmanned aircraft, or drones, but Cooke says there are still too many obstacles to that approach. “The FAA is still just researching how states and local governments can use them,” he explains, adding that he believes the United States is still a few years away from using that technology stateside.
Another possibility is a software solution that would allow Colorado to download information to the incident commanders on the ground so they can have real-time information about what the fire is doing, where the fuel is, and the rate of the fire’s spread. This would be done through GIS software, which has been adopted by fire departments and federal agencies for various purposes.
Stephen McElroy, head of the GIS program at American Sentinel University in Aurora, Colorado, describes GIS as a system that integrates multiple data sets, from hardware, software, and mapping information, to capture and analyze forms of geographically referenced information. He says that the most appealing aspect of GIS for emergency response is increased situational awareness.
“GIS is able to integrate data sources from a variety of data layers…and from a planning perspective you could use it to determine how we protect our resources,” he explains. Fire departments can use the software to determine where critical infrastructure is, where roads are, and where buildings are, so all information is accurate and updated in a timely manner. Fire departments can plug in information about wildfires as they occur and can also capture information from satellites to show where the fire is moving in real time.
One way GIS can help in a disaster scenario is by plugging it into a 911 system. If a disaster occurs, such as a wildfire, the user can identify where the fire began and establish a perimeter around that area, such as one mile, beyond which everyone must evacuate. “You could then identify all the property owners that have a parcel that touches that one-mile buffer, which could create a phone list from your 911 system to actually send an automated phone call to everybody that’s on that list” instructing them to evacuate, McElroy explains. Also, if the fire quickly spreads, that buffer zone can be automatically expanded and set off another round of evacuation calls to those on the pre-programmed list.
The Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service currently uses GIS to identify active wildfires in the nation, vegetation conditions after a wildfire, and areas for aerial fire-retardant avoidance. Esri is a company that specializes in employing GIS for various purposes, including fire prevention. Russ Johnson, Esri’s director of public safety solutions and a former fire chief, says that GIS can be used to help fire departments determine risk areas and how to handle those risks.
For instance, to contain a fire and keep it from spreading, fire departments usually need to be able to begin suppressing it before four minutes have passed. By plugging fire station data into GIS software, fire departments can determine how far they can travel in four minutes based on the time of day and traffic patterns.
If there’s an area that the fire department can’t get to in four minutes, the software will identify it, allowing users to decide whether they need to add a new fire station there, whether to require property owners to take additional fire prevention measures—such as installing a sprinkler system—or whether to increase fire prevention education in that area, Johnson explains.
When it comes to preventing wildfires, GIS can be used to map how a wildfire might spread given the weather conditions, the available fuel for the fire—such as brush and trees—and the terrain. For example, GIS could show that an incline of more than 20 percent that is covered with half-dead medium brush would create a “very intense fire.” Before GIS, fire departments would have had to make these determinations using static maps, but now, they can assess vulnerabilities almost immediately.
Once an incident has occurred, GIS can model how the fire will spread. “It will show me, based upon wind conditions, vegetation conditions, fuel moisture conditions, where that fire’s going to be and what period of time it’s going to be there,” Johnson explains.
This type of information is invaluable to those on the ground who need real-time information on where the fire is going and how to keep firefighters out of harm’s way. “It’s harder for them to identify on the ground where they should and shouldn’t be, but if we can provide that information from the air where a fire’s burning based on the weather information, we can help identify where those ground fighters should go,” Cooke explains.
Colorado is currently looking into adopting a GIS solution statewide, and Cooke says he hopes to have it up and running during the state’s fire season this year.
Along with technological advances and community outreach, Colorado has been exploring possible legislative reforms that could help prevent wildfires in the state. After last year’s destruction, Colorado’s Legislative Council formed the Wildfire Matters Review Committee to review and propose legislation related to wildfire prevention, mitigation, and related matters.
The committee finished its review and published its findings in January 2014. It also recommended nine bills and two resolutions to the Colorado General Assembly on wildfire prevention, public safety, and tax reforms. The first recommended bill prohibits agricultural burning and changes restrictions to fireworks. The bill would strike an existing provision in state law that limits county governments’ ability to prohibit the sale, use, and possession of fireworks between May 31 and July 5, dates when there is a high risk of fire.
Another bill recommended by the committee would create a wildfire information and resource center that would maintain a Web site about current wildfires in Colorado. The Web site would include information on prevention of and preparation for a wildfire, statewide fire danger and current burning restrictions, and prescribed heavy burn activity.
The committee’s bills were introduced to Colorado’s General Assembly, but they have yet to be acted on by state lawmakers.
An additional stronger measure proposed by state lawmakers included charging fees on homes built in high-risk burn areas. McElroy, a Colorado resident, says that this proposal is reasonable because the higher taxes would go to pay for firefighters and equipment to defend structures in those high-risk areas. Other measures proposed by lawmakers include establishing a state building code for the use of fire-resistant materials and defensible space, but these proposals have not been introduced formally as legislation.
While Cooke says it’s too early to determine if Colorado will have an increased risk of wildfires this summer, the state is already encouraging home- owners and businesses to take the proper precautions to prevent fire, along with researching how to get the right information into the hands of first responders.
“We’re working with our fire chiefs, our sheriffs, and other responders to identify how we can get more resources on these fires quickly so that we can keep them small,” he says.