Damage from the Marshall Fire in Boulder County on Dec. 30. Credit: Anthony Albidrez.

When someone mentions a home lost to wildfire, you might imagine flames stalking through the forest like a puma before leaping to engulf the structure. But in reality, houses often catch fire due to a “blizzard of embers” raining down from above, carried on a wind determined to spread chaos.

“You can get thousands of embers landing on your house,” said Jim Webster, coordinator of the Wildfire Partners program, a public-private fire mitigation partnership led by Boulder County. “A lot land on the roof, but with the wind, [the embers] can also be pelting the side of your house. Then they fall down to the base of the wall.”

And if the area immediately around your house is mulch or some other combustible material, those embers — sometimes blown from more than a mile away — will land in the fuel, catch fire, and subsequently ignite your home. 

Should one wish to reduce their home’s ignition risk, removing home-hugging mulch would be just the beginning of a fire mitigation plan developed by the Wildfire Partners program. Designed in 2013 and launched in 2014 with Jim Webster at its helm, Wildfire Partners helps Boulder County homeowners protect their property from wildfire, even while living in areas adapted to burn.

“Fire is a natural party of our ecosystems; we’re going to continue to have fires,” Webster said. “Our program is an adaptation program so people can learn to live with fire.” 

In 1989, the Black Tiger Fire burned the foothills northwest of Boulder. At that point, it was the most devastating wildland-urban interface fire in the history of Colorado. Wildland-urban interface, often abbreviated to WUI, stands for areas where human development abuts nature. When fire works its way into the WUI, especially when the wildland involved is predisposed to torch, homes are often lost. The Black Tiger Fire burned 44 homes within six hours.

“The Black Tiger Fire triggered lots of actions,” Webster said. “It started our mitigation efforts.”

Maintenance is key

In 2010, the Fourmile Canyon Fire just west of Boulder took 169 homes, the most in Colorado history at the time. That total would be surpassed twice in the next two years by both the High Park Fire (259 homes) and the Waldo Canyon Fire (346 homes). With several intermediaries, the current record belongs to last year’s Marshall Fire (1,089 homes). 

Yet before its total was surpassed, the Fourmile Fire caused a reassessment of Boulder County’s mitigation efforts started 20 years prior.

“There were some harsh lessons,” Webster said of the Fourmile Fire. “We’d been doing mitigation for years, but there was really so much more to do.”

“So much more” is what the Wildfire Partners program aims to provide.

Until now, the program was tailored to those living in west Boulder county (Fire Zone No. 1), including the towns of Nederland, Jamestown, Ward and Lyons. (Wildfire Partners program is expanding into the plains of eastern unincorporated Boulder County.) After applying on the program’s website, homeowners in the area are treated to a one-on-one site visit with a mitigation specialist. Taking two to four hours, the specialist walks the property, jotting notes and taking pictures of potential vulnerabilities, while explaining the theory of fire mitigation to the proprietor. 

“The homeowner learns and becomes engaged,” Webster said.

And engagement is necessary when the property owner will be doing all the mitigation work themselves, or paying a contractor to complete it on their behalf. After the initial assessment, a detailed, customized action plan is delivered with specific steps required if the property owner hopes to receive a Wildfire Partners certification that can be provided to insurance, tacked on a yard sign, or uploaded as part of a home listing should the owner wish to sell.

“It’s a lot of work; it’s not necessarily cheap, and it’s not something you just do one time,” Webster said. “Maintenance is a key part of this. Living with wildfire, people who live in those high risk areas, it’s part of their expected responsibility.”

Prior to the Fourmile Fire, most mitigation advice was a one-size-fits-all approach. The benefit of the Wildfire Partners program, like hiring a personal trainer or nutritionist, is its personalization. But while a nutritionist determines the effect of potato chips on one’s distinct constitution, a Wildfire Partners mitigation specialist reviews each property’s unique fire-mitigation challenges. 

Assessing those challenges hinges on a series of questions: What kind of trees surround the home? (Some, like junipers, are highly volatile, yet others, like aspens, have a high moisture content making them less likely to burn.) How close together are these trees, and how close are they to the structure? What materials were used in building the property? Are there uncovered vents where embers could sidle into the attic and kindle the house from within?

“You need an expert to come look at your vulnerabilities and give you a customized plan so you work smarter not harder,” Webster said. “It requires technical assistance. Like plumbing or electrical work, [mitigation planning] is a new specialty.”

The remains of a Louisville home destroyed by the Marshall Fire reveal a heartfelt message left by previous homeowners. Credit: Anthony Albidrez

‘It’s about working with your neighbors.’

Building codes also play a key role in reducing the risk of property loss in the event of a fire.

“Unlike floods or other natural disasters, we can harden homes,” Webster said. “People know the story of the three little pigs. We also want to build houses out of brick, not sticks and straw.”

Keeping in mind the “blizzard of embers,” or firebrands, that can set alight a house from above, a stipulation in Boulder’s roofing requirements is a Class A roof (built with low-combustible material) for those living in Fire Zone No. 1. No wood shakes or shingles, which ignite at a mere 378 degrees Fahrenheit. Wildfires reach temperatures as high as 1,472 degrees Fahrenheit.

Another tactic used by the county is limiting development in fire-prone areas.

“[Per] our Boulder County Comprehensive plan, we direct development into existing urban areas, existing developed areas,” Webster said. “We haven’t approved a subdivision in the county since the 1970s.”

But after the Marshall Fire, which destroyed more property than any wildfire in Colorado history, it’s clear that future fires will not be contained to the western part of Boulder county. The expansion of the Wildfire Partners program into eastern unincorporated Boulder County will provide learning opportunities both for residents and the program itself — lessons that include a focus on collaboration over individual autonomy.

“Grass fires are different than forest fires, and the housing patterns [on the plains] are different,” Webster said. “On the plains, we have more subdivisions, denser communities. There are mitigation measures you can take no matter your plot size, but you don’t control as much of your risk if you have a smaller lot. So it’s [about] working with your neighbors.”

If one resident doesn’t engage with mitigation techniques, they can undermine the efforts of an entire neighborhood. And with a changing climate making already unpredictable fires even more so, few neighborhoods have the luxury of ignoring the risks.

“We’re often focused on our most recent disaster,” Webster said. “So right now we’re thinking about the Marshall Fire. But after the East Troublesome Fire, we were thinking, ‘We’ve gotta focus on those high elevation forests.’ 

“The next fire is not going to look like exactly the last one. We have to be ready county wide, community wide. Because we can’t predict where the next fire is going to happen.”

Tim Drugan

Tim Drugan covers wildfires, water and other climate change-related issues for Boulder Reporting Lab with a focus on explanatory and solutions journalism. He also is the lead writer of BRL Today, our morning newsletter. Tim grew up in New Hampshire and graduated from UNH with a degree in English/Journalism.