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Boulder Residents Join Wildfire Partners With Expertise

"I am pretty environmentally sensitive, and I figure if I am going to live in the forest, and the forest hasn't been properly managed for about 100 years, it was up to us to do the work."

(TNS) — Karna Knapp sat outside her home in Nederland soaking up the warm sun while her partner, Lester Karplus, napped inside during a relaxing summer day six years ago.

Knapp was the first to smell the powerful fumes of smoke that afternoon. The smell was soon followed by the blaring sound of sirens.

After Knapp woke Karplus, they decided to investigate and climbed over a hill, following the trail of smoke.

"As we were looking over the top (of the hill), we saw this roaring fire," Karplus said.

For about a week, they stayed with friends and at hotels before returning home after firefighters extinguished the Cold Springs Fire, which devoured eight homes and forced the evacuation of nearly 2,000 people in July 2016.

The forest surrounding their home looked skeletal. The once-thick, towering pine trees had been charred by flames. Two neighboring houses, which were each a few hundred feet away from their home, burned to the ground. Despite damage to their fence and other landscape-related features, their home was untouched.

It wasn't luck that saved them. Although Knapp and Karplus had hoped a wildfire would not affect them, they knew the odds and had prepared for the worst.

"I am pretty environmentally sensitive, and I figure if I am going to live in the forest, and the forest hasn't been properly managed for about 100 years, it was up to us to do the work," Karplus said.

As wildfires become more frequent in Colorado, homeowners not just in the foothills but in the plains have also begun looking to do the same. For about eight years, Boulder County's Wildfire Partners program has helped residents like Karplus learn how to protect their homes. After the Marshall Fire, it created a pilot program for unincorporated Boulder County residents in the plains and is hoping to continue to expand its work in order to help residents avoid disaster.

Without the work and guidance from Wildfire Partners, Karplus knows his home would have burned like many others.

"The fire just went around all of our buildings," Karplus said. "It was like the perfect scenario of following the letter of great fire mitigation and what it saved you while neighboring homes just burned to the ground."

Mitigating the risk

After the Fourmile Fire scorched 6,388 acres in Boulder County in 2010, the county decided to apply for grant funding to mitigate the danger for 1,000 homes.

But the process was slower than anticipated, said Jim Webster, program coordinator for Wildfire Partners. In an effort to move faster on the necessary work to prepare homes for future fires, the county worked with the public to learn what their needs were and eventually created Wildfire Partners, which began working with the public in 2014.

So far, it has completed 2,829 wildfire mitigation assessments in western Boulder County, known as Wildfire Zone One. The program is funded by a $1.2 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and by Boulder County.

During the assessments, an official with Wildfire Partners walks the perimeter of the home with the homeowners and gives them a list of tasks they need to complete, some of which include trimming branches that hang over the house; removing wood mulch and replacing it with stone or gravel; and using fire-resistant siding such as brick or stucco. Officials also talk to homeowners about evacuation plans and how to prepare for wildfires.

Homeowners can apply for up to $2,000 in aid to complete forestry work such as tree removal as part of the assessment program. After homeowners complete and pass the process, they receive a certificate, indicating they meet the standards required by many insurance companies.

Webster said one of the ideas behind Wildfire Partners was to create a partnership with insurance agencies to standardize their requirements and simplify the process for homeowners.

"( Before Wildfire Partners), each individual insurance agency came up with its own guidelines, and some of those guidelines come from different states," Webster said. "We educated them on our standards, and they decided to accept it. We are working together in partnership."

The program has allowed homeowners like Boulder County resident Howard Gordon to maintain his homeowners insurance, he said.

"Shortly after the Marshall Fire, we got a letter (from our insurance agency) saying they are going to send out an auditor to audit our property," Gordon said. "They said the brush behind our house was at risk, and they said before they would renew our insurance we needed to remove the brush."

Gordon worked with Wildfire Partners for instruction on what he needed to do earlier this year, and they helped him meet his May deadline to renew his policy, he said. Along with certification, homeowners are given a Wildfire Partners yard sign.

Gordon said he is proud of the one he has in his lawn and has seen more pop up in surrounding areas throughout the years.

"It's a badge of honor," he said.

Gordon said the assessment he completed this year was his second. He also worked with the organization in 2016 after learning about the program from his neighbors. Following the report, he trimmed branches, fixed exposed portions of his foundation and put rocks around his propane tank.

Gordon said he spent his career working as a corporate director of an engineering company. His everyday job was finding ways to mitigate risk. When he learned about Wildfire Partners, it seemed like completing an assessment was the obvious thing to do to mitigate risk at home, he said.

"We watched the Calwood Fire, (and) we watched the homes go up in flames," he said. "The reality of seeing what can happen with a wildfire is real. We had no encouragement from our insurance company back then."

Changing policies

The 2002 Hayman wildfire that burned across Douglas, Jefferson, Park and Teller counties was a wakeup call for insurance agencies after it claimed 600 structures, including 133 residences, said Carole Walker, executive director of Rocky Mountain Insurance Association.

Since then, requirements have been put in place for homeowners in the mountains and foothills in order to keep their insurance costs low or to retain their coverage altogether.

"Over at least the last decade we are starting to see more momentum with insurance companies requiring wildfire mitigation," she said. "Wildfires are different from some of these other natural disasters. Wildfires really show us that with the proper ongoing mitigation, it can greatly reduce the risk."

Walker said insurance agencies and other experts who continue to stay involved with the drying climate in Colorado know that the risk isn't just in the mountains anymore. Eventually, insurance agencies will expand requirements to homes in the plains — like those affected by the Marshall Fire.

Wildfire Partners is already looking ahead to when that day comes by beginning its new pilot program, which will offer home assessments without certification to 100 residents in the eastern portion of unincorporated Boulder County.

Webster said Wildfire Partners received 250 applications and is sorting through them now before beginning work later this summer.

"We are providing the technical assistance, but we are not providing the certification," he said. "Right now there is not the demand (for certification) because insurance companies have not required that. What's driving (the demand) in our communities is people are scared."

Boulder County resident Tim Moley is one of the 250 people who applied for the program.

Moley, who lives in Lake Valley Estates, said he is the chair of his homeowner association's Wildfire Protection Committee.

He began looking at ways to reduce the risk of losing his home to a wildfire after he watched the Calwood Fire from his deck.

"I started studying it myself to see what I can do and made some good progress and started replacing parts of the house like the soffit and the vents in the soffit that are not necessarily screened correctly to prevent embers," Moley said.

The next step is to work with Wildfire Partners to get an expert opinion on the work he has done and what more he needs to do.

"I think for a lot of folks, the primary question in their mind is: 'How do you decide between duty and the coziness of your home and landscape and keeping your home safe in the event of a wildfire?' Moley said. "That's where a professional can come in and help a lot."

A new approach

Abby Silver will soon be one of those experts helping homeowners in eastern Boulder County, or Wildfire Zone Two, learn about Wildfire Partners' home hardening process, which aims to make the exterior of the house as safe as possible.

"Our goal is to get a wide variety of types of homes like (homes) in a subdivision versus not (in a subdivision) and different parts of the eastern county," said Silver, a wildfire mitigation specialist with Wildfire Partners.

This will be Silver's first time working with homeowners in the plains, but she already has a few theories on what she may find, she said. Some of the issues homeowners may have include mulch placed against a home, juniper bushes near a home's foundation, dry wood fences and recreational vehicles parked next to a home, which can fuel a fire if left by residents during an evacuation.

"I think the complexity of working on the plains is going to be figuring out how to get entire communities to mitigate," she said. "Reducing fuels helps everybody, and it does impact the chance of survival, but on the plains you have the domino effect that we saw with the Marshall Fire, and that is sort of less of the case in the mountains."

If the pilot program is able to eventually evolve into a full-time program, Silver said the work Wildfire Partners does in the plains will need to be different than its program in the foothills, which works with homeowners on an individual basis."

"It has to be a community effort," she said. "You have to start with education and leading by example. Rules can be changed, and there are places that probably have mandates. I think there is plenty of work to be done, and it's not going to happen in a minute."

One update that was passed after the Marshall Fire changed the exterior building requirements for all future structures in the eastern portion of unincorporated Boulder County.

The update requires that all future exterior structures built in Wildfire Zone Two comply with the county's ignition-resistant standards.

Ron Flax, deputy director of the Boulder County Community Planning & Permitting Department and chief building official, said he expects to see other parts of Colorado approve similar requirements. He added that the market is already headed in the direction of designing more wildfire-resilient homes. But changing building materials and codes isn't the entire solution.

"I think it's really important to recognize the energy consumption patterns and the rate that these are getting worse," he said. "The entire economy is contributing toward the rate of change, and that's the piece I think that is easy to move past. Building smaller, more energy-efficient homes is important, but so is looking at consumer goods. We have to make sure we are looking at this in a holistic way and doing what we can as a whole and individually."

An evolving program

Using a geographic information system, Boulder County can analyze the slope of an area in the county. It can examine the terrain, and it can review past fires to see how they moved through the county and which paths they followed.

The county has been using this technology for about a decade now to better prepare for future wildfires and also evaluate the areas that need mitigation work, said Josh Ryan, a GIS Specialist with Boulder County Community Planning & Permitting.

"It's just compiling information and putting it into one spot — being able to see everything at one moment in time is the best way to identify high wildfire areas without having to go boots on the ground," he said.

Since the county started using GIS mapping, it has determined that everything on the western side of the county is in a high-hazard zone, Ryan said. What's next, is looking at the eastern part of the county.

Ryan said in the next month he will begin consolidating geographical information to present to county officials. Using that information, Boulder County will be able to look at areas that may be in high-hazard zones like the mountains while also seeing other areas that may not have the same risk. This will help guide the county as it looks at future regulations or mitigation strategies for east Boulder County.

This information may be beneficial as Wildfire Partners begins to examine ways to expand its pilot program into a certification program as well as secure funding to help residents do the work, which is currently not offered to residents in the plains.

Webster said the program is considering ways to do all of this rather than having surrounding communities begin their own programs as the risk of wildfires continues to spread.

"We spent the last nine years creating and implementing the program, and we have a lot of experience," he said. "Other counties trying to re-create the wheel doesn't make sense. We are looking at additional areas to grow the program so we can support more areas."

©2022 the Daily Times-Call (Longmont, Colo.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.