A Flagstaff house residing amongst the trees. Not far from open space, such vegetation up against a structure is a wildfire hazard. Credit: Tim Drugan

If you have the money — that insidious caveat. 

In Boulder Reporting Lab’s most recent wildfire story, we covered a group of neighbors working to bury their utility lines. With power lines’ wildfire-igniting potential, especially in high-wind areas, putting them below ground is worthwhile — if you have the money.  

Without laws forcing utilities to bury their lines or financial support from the city aiding civilians, Boulderites wanting to underground their power lines must fend for themselves. This raises the question: Is fire mitigation providing a new foothold for inequality? If you have the money are you less likely to have your home turn to ash?

“A lot of our fires in recent history have been started by power lines breaking and coming down, or blowing together in wind events,” said Brian Oliver, Boulder Fire-Rescue’s wildland division chief. Oliver used the term “arcing and sparking” to describe how power lines can start fires without ever toppling. When wind blows adjacent lines together, electricity can travel between the two and shower sparks onto receptive vegetation below. 

But burying lines isn’t cheap. After working with the three companies that share space on Boulder’s telephone poles — Xcel, Comcast and Century Link — the cost for the profiled Boulder neighborhood came to about $300 per foot, or $120,000 for 400 feet of line. Such a cost is irritating to some but impossible for others. 

$2.5 million is a steal for a house in the Flagstaff neighborhood where lines are being buried. Most people don’t have that kind of cash to spend on a home, let alone the additional thousands to underground its lines.

“Most of the things we suggest people do costs money,” Oliver said of Boulder Fire-Rescue’s fire mitigation recommendations. “I do believe there’s going to be a large underserved population who don’t have the funds to do a lot of this [mitigation] work. Those who have the funds are going to do it and some folks will get left behind.”

Yet there’s consolation for those on a budget — Oliver doesn’t consider undergrounding power lines a top priority. It’s important for sure, as Oliver said ideally all lines in Boulder would be subsurface. But for those looking to make the most of their bucks, cheaper fire mitigation practices can offer more bang. 

“Undergrounding [power lines] is a step towards reducing the potential of ignition,” Oliver said. “But the best mitigation starts from inside the home and works its way out. Getting folks to do home hardening is the first step before undertaking big costly steps such as undergrounding.”

Home hardening includes replacing your wooden siding with non-combustible material, removing junipers — whose oils and resins are eager to ignite — and getting rid of mulch that encourage embers blown from nearby wildfires to maturity. As Oliver said, these are the first steps – albeit steps whose costs could still run into the thousands. Nevertheless, grand projects shouldn’t distract from the basics. Yet they do.

Defensible space, limbing trees and cutting down junipers

While walking through the Flagstaff neighborhood for the undergrounding story, BRL noticed several mitigation techniques being ignored. Trees grew so thick around some homes that the structures were all but hidden despite being only 20 feet from the road. One of the most important fire mitigation practices is having nothing combustible within 5 feet of your house. Tree limbs caressing your siding is an invitation you don’t want to provide.

Boulder Fire-Rescue does curbside home assessments to establish the fire risk of properties near open space. Posted on a public facing website, the assessments show civilians and fire fighters where flames have the best chance of blossoming. The undergrounding Flagstaff neighborhood is spitting distance from open space, meaning most properties within have been assessed. Many are labeled high risk for fire. Some, very high.

“[Undergrounding] should be part of a bigger picture comprehensive plan,” Oliver said. “It is a step to accomplish, but probably lower on my priority list. If you look at cost versus benefit, the low-hanging fruit is all those things you can do around your home.”

Oliver reiterated defensible space, limbing trees and cutting down junipers.

But for some, even the basic mitigation practices are out of reach. New siding can be thousands of dollars and a new non-combustible roof even more. Oliver referenced the recent Inflation Reduction Act as a potential aid for those who don’t have the means to fire-proof their homes. 

“There is a whole pile of money in there set aside for grants and programs for fire mitigation,” Oliver said. According to Colorado Congressmember Joe Neguse’s website, the Inflation Reduction Act provides $5 billion for forest and reforestation investments as well as wildfire mitigation programs. “In theory, there is a lot of money coming out of the federal government soon to help with moving some of these projects forward.”

If you live in the City of Boulder and want a detailed Wildfire Home Assessment from Boulder Fire-Rescue, this application will put you in the queue.

Tim Drugan is the climate and environment reporter for Boulder Reporting Lab, covering wildfires, water and other related topics. He is also the lead writer of BRL Today, our morning newsletter. Email: tim@boulderreportinglab.org.

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