For the last 15 years, the average number of red flag (fire weather) warning days per year was seven or eight for Boulder. Friday, April 22 will be the 12th red flag warning day in 2022 — in just four months.
“Is this the new normal? I don’t know. I don’t know what normal is anymore,” said Brian Oliver, Boulder Fire Rescue’s wildland chief.
When humans lived in nomadic bands, fire was a tool utilized to clear dense gullies and overgrown forests. If these fires burned out of control, or started on their own, it’s easy to imagine people simply moving out of the way and adapting to the changing landscape. They didn’t have any other choice; they didn’t have fire retardant, or planes to drop it from.
Houses with foundations, however, are difficult to move. When fires approach our towns, we do everything we can to put it out. But with Colorado’s climate getting ever hotter and drier, Mother Nature might become insistent on reminding humans of their place in the pecking order — foundations and all.
“We can have all the science and all the resources in the world, [but] as we saw with the Marshall fire, Mother Nature wins, every time,” Oliver said. “Wildfire is a force of nature. An interesting analogy is: We don’t send troops or firefighters down to the Gulf when a hurricane is coming to stop or turn the hurricane. We get everybody out of the way.”
But that doesn’t mean nothing can be done. Though adaptation will be necessary, mitigation efforts are still valuable and often effective.
‘It’s a really hard tightrope to walk.‘
A month ago, Boulder residents watched smoke plume off a 200-acre fire near the NCAR Mesa Laboratory. But years-long mitigation efforts kept the NCAR fire at bay and allowed thousands of evacuees to return to unscathed homes.
Overseeing many of these mitigation efforts is Oliver, who faces the daily conundrum of preventing fire on a landscape that has evolved to need it.
“Eliminating fire from the landscape is a terrible idea,” Oliver said.
Without fire, our local ecosystem becomes overgrown, creating conditions ripe for uncontrollable fires and enabling the proliferation of invasive species. Ponderosa Pines are an example of a local species that requires fire to maintain equilibrium. Their cones open and release seeds under the heat of fire; their thick bark allows them to withstand fire licking their trunks.
“As Ponderosa Pines get taller, their lower limbs die and fall off,” Oliver said. “So there’s not that ladder to the canopy.”
A ladder of fuel, in branches, is one factor that can lead to out-of-control fires. If fire climbs a tree’s dead branches to its canopy, the fire is no longer spreading across the underbrush but instead leaping from treetop to treetop.
“If a fire stays on the ground in the grass, we have a better chance of putting it out,” Oliver explained, citing the use of air-applied suppressants and man-powered efforts as effective against ground fires. “Once it goes to the tree crowns and is spreading that way, there’s very little we can do from a suppression standpoint.”
Clearing away these branches has been one of the mitigation techniques used near Boulder, as has thinning trees so there is space between canopies—preventing the crown-jumping that is so difficult to control. Grazing animals have also played a role in reducing grass volume in at-risk areas. But what would help most in preventing fire is fire itself.
“The ecosystem needs fire, but the communities abutting that ecosystem don’t need fire, don’t want fire,” Oliver said. “It’s a really hard tightrope to walk.”
Prescribed burns as a solution: There’s ‘no margin for error.’
Prescribed burns, the most effective fire mitigation technique — and the most needed — is also the riskiest.
In areas far from municipalities, there is a buffer of uninhabited landscape for firefighters to reclaim a runaway prescribed burn. Near Boulder, however, some of the areas that would benefit most from prescribed burning are mere yards from homes and neighborhoods. “We have almost no margin for error,” Oliver said.
Climate change has amplified the risks. Shoulder seasons that used to be ideal for prescribed burns are getting shorter and less predictable. And prescribed burns are already not cheap.
“The resource needs to maintain fire in a controlled state is huge,” Oliver said. “It’s almost cost prohibitive.”
There are also bureaucratic hoops to jump through. As part of the seven-county Denver metro area, Boulder needs to apply for a smoke permit for any prescribed burn, which entails proving the burn is worth putting particulate into the air. This means non-devastating wildfires are sometimes seen through an optimistic lens as impromptu, permit-skipping prescribed burns.
“In the mind of our forest ecologist [the NCAR fire] was 200 acres of prescribed burn,” Oliver said. “That’s an area that’s not going to burn again for a number of years with any sort of intensity because the fuel has been removed.”
Oliver explained that in some areas the NCAR fire did reach trees’ canopies, “torching” them — which means they will die. But that’s okay, he said. “That’s part of the ecosystem.
“If those trees were tight enough together with branches low enough to the ground to burn, they needed to be thinned anyway,” he said.
Boulder firefighting capacity is ‘right at the limit.’
Because of the amount of open space owned by the city, Boulder is one of only a few municipal fire departments with a wildland division. While it has thus far been able to handle the city’s needs, Oliver said it is “right at the limit.”
“We have a good-sized fire department,” Oliver said. “But the increasing call load, not just in wildland fire but across the board, has us pretty well tapped.”
As the fire department appeals to the Boulder City Council for increased funding to bridge the gap in firefighting resources, it is also working to increase its education and outreach to the community. Assessments are a big piece of that outreach.
Fire-proofing should be ‘done at a community-scale.’
Right now, the fire department offers two kinds of assessments. The first, a curbside assessment, looks at a home’s risk from nearby streets and open space. Kept on a public facing website, homeowners can get an initial take on where their house stands on a green to red risk scale. This curbside assessment also acts as intel for the fire department should a wildfire ignite near a neighborhood, offering insight into at-risk houses beforehand.
The second option is a detailed assessment, where homeowners can schedule a walkthrough (through the aforementioned website) with a fire department representative to understand where their property is most vulnerable and the steps they can take to “home-harden.” This includes building with non-combustible materials and zero-scaping so there’s no shrubbery to burn near their house.
“Most folks are pretty well-educated on what needs to happen,” Oliver said. “The gap is in what their neighbors are doing.”
You can utilize every fire-proofing technique on your property, but if your neighbor’s house catches fire, the radiant heat and embers generated are going to render your efforts futile. “[Fire-proofing] really needs to be done at a community scale,” Oliver said.
And as the population continues to grow and people continue building farther into the woods, community fire mitigation is only going to become more important.
“Fire is not a problem we can solve,” Oliver said. “There’s always going to be lightening or careless people. Fires are going to continue to start and grow.
“[The community] can’t rely on Open Space to do all the mitigation work, or rely on the fire department to come and put the fire out every time. They have to be prepared for the eventuality of fire.”
Community members also need to have an evacuation plan, and realize that despite their best efforts, the fire department might not be able to save their home.
“In an ecosystem that requires it, when Mother Nature decides she wants that ecosystem to burn, she’ll find a way.”