More than 1,000 homes in Louisville and Superior were destroyed during the Marshall Fire on Dec. 30. Credit: John Herrick

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Superior Mayor Pro-Tem Mark Lacis struggled to decide whether to support an ordinance exempting Marshall Fire survivors who are rebuilding their homes from the town’s residential sprinkler requirement during last week’s town board meeting on May 23.

“The nightmare scenario I was wrestling with — and I know a number of my fellow board members were wrestling with — is what if we have a fire in the future and one of the homes that gets rebuilt didn’t have a sprinkler system, and then … somebody died in that house,” Lacis said at the town board meeting on May 23. “Having that on my conscience would be very difficult.”

But Lacis ultimately decided to support the sprinkler opt-out ordinance, which the board approved in a 5–2 vote. He initially opposed the measure, but changed his mind in response to an outpouring of concern from survivors about the steep costs of rebuilding.

Since the Dec. 30 wildfire destroyed more than 1,000 homes in southern Boulder County, the governments of Louisville and Superior have tried to ease the financial burden for rebuilding homeowners in various ways, including exempting them from the most recent energy efficiency building codes. The vast majority of residents who lost homes were underinsured and may have to dig deep into their own pockets to cover the full cost of rebuilding — if they rebuild at all.

Only 8% of homes lost in the fire had guaranteed replacement coverage that will fully cover the cost of rebuilding. For the remainder of rebuilding residents, the Colorado Division of Insurance estimates their underinsurance burden is between $99,000 and $243,000 per household, depending on construction costs. 

The Superior Town Board’s approval of the sprinkler opt-out ordinance exemplifies the thorny dilemmas facing local governments as they try to facilitate the rebuilding of homes in the burn area: whether to lower costs for individuals by carving out exceptions to regulations designed to protect residents from house fires and future wildfires amid accelerating climate change. 

“I didn’t want to be in the position where the board’s decision would prevent someone from rebuilding,” Lacis said in an interview with the Boulder Reporting Lab. “I talked to a lot of fire victims. … The underinsurance problem is a potentially insurmountable problem for them. If we mandated this cost for sprinklers, a lot of residents told me they weren’t going to be able to rebuild.”

Mayor Clint Folsom, who voted against the ordinance, urged the other board members to consider the sentence included in every town ordinance: “This ordinance is deemed necessary for the protection of the health, welfare, and safety of the community.” Folsom asked, “How can we justify that eliminating fire sprinklers is necessary for the health, welfare, and safety of the community? This ordinance, to me, is for the protection of dollar bills.”

Lacis later replied to Folsom’s question in a statement explaining his vote. “If people can’t afford to build back their homes, that’s not good for the welfare of the community,” he said. Millions of dollars raised through the Boulder County Wildfire Fund could be made available soon to households that are rebuilding, to help encourage them to stay — though exactly how much each will get and when remain uncertain.

Mountain View Fire Rescue Deputy Chief Jeff Webb wanted the sprinkler requirement to stay intact for everyone, but he said he recognized the cost may not be feasible for some residents. “The statistics are well-proven that fire risk and the risk of injury and damage to home goes way down if you have sprinklers. It’s the right way to go,” Webb said. “But we have to be realistic about what people can afford to pay.”

‘It wasn’t a great win, but it’s a good compromise.’

Webb estimated the cost of a sprinkler system in a new house to be around $5 to $7 per square foot. At an average house size of 2,594 square feet, the cost for Superior residents to install a residential sprinkler system would be somewhere in the range of $13,000 to $18,000. Webb said costs have risen sharply in the past year due to supply chain issues and inflation.

Many residents who spoke during the public comment section of the ordinance hearing expressed gratitude to the board for listening to their input. “I appreciate those of you who thought you had one position but you’ve changed your position in response to all the public comments you’ve received,” said Delynn Copley, who lost her home in the fire.

Another resident, Mark Sires, said he supported the sprinkler opt-out because “it wouldn’t have stopped my home from burning in a fire like [the Marshall Fire].” Residential fire sprinklers, as Deputy Chief Webb explained at the meeting, are only effective at extinguishing fires that start inside the home, like a fire started by cooking or a knocked over candle. They are no match against a wildfire raging through a neighborhood.

Residential sprinklers will still be required for all other new homes built in Superior not covered by the opt-out, which applies only to Marshall Fire survivors. All apartment buildings and multi-family homes are also required to have sprinkler systems. 

“The life threat risk is higher in a multi-family home like a duplex,” Webb said. “You cannot control your neighbors’ environment.”

He pointed to the Louisville City Council’s decision to repeal its sprinkler requirement for all residents (not just fire survivors) and said he was glad Superior didn’t do the same.

Ultimately, Webb described the passage of the Superior ordinance as a half victory. “​​It wasn’t a great win,” he said. “But it’s a good compromise.” 

Clarification: This story has been updated from a previous version to add clarity surrounding Superior’s sprinkler code ordinance, which is designed to protect against house fires.