From: Dave Betzler <>
Date: Thu, Dec 27, 2018 at 2:50 PM
Subject: Revised Email Text
To: Beth Lonnquist <>
The Black Forest Fire broke out on June 11, 2013. Once the smoke had cleared, it was learned the wildfire had taken two lives, destroyed 486 homes and blackened over 14,000 acres of ponderosa pine forests. Many were left wondering how this happened given what we know about wildfire mitigation.
The Pikes Peak Wildfire Prevention Partners (PPWPP) was contacted by the Governor’s Office on June 19, 2013 and tasked with determining the efficacy of Defensible Space (D-Space) and homeowner wildfire mitigation during the Black Forest Fire. Defensible space is defined as “the natural and landscaped area around a home or other structure that has been modified to reduce fire hazard” (Protecting Your Home from Wildfires: Creating Wildfire-Defensible Spaces, CSFS Fire 2012-1). Questions had been raised by evacuees from the fire who lost their homes, and claimed their mitigation was not effective. The task outlined for PPWPP was to determine if these claims were true. Was mitigation effective in reducing structural losses?
The following is a summary of the assessment team’s findings:
Individual property defensible spaces were easily overwhelmed by extreme wildfire behavior due to failure of surrounding owners to reduce fuel volumes. Property owners who heeded the advice of local officials fell victim to the inaction of their neighbors. Continuous areas of unthinned forests with ladder fuels allowed the fire, pushed by high winds, to repeatedly reform into a series of destructive crown fires that ran eight miles to the east during the first eight hour burning period. The same fuel and weather conditions then allowed the fire to burn five miles to the north on the next day. A structure assessment was done on 75 properties both in and abutting the burn area. This is included in Appendix D.
Defensible space, as understood by the average Wildland-UrbanInterface(WUI) dweller, has different meanings and is confusing to the general public. Claims of mitigation by property owners may be true according to their own interpretation. These claims may also be based on outdated messages or information. There is very little understanding, by the general public, of wildfire behavior in the face of heavy fuel loading and extreme weather events like those experienced during the Black Forest Fire.
Defensible spaces, as defined by the recently replaced CSU Publication 6.302 Managing Wildfire Risks, were not generally implemented in the burn area. Very little forest management or wildfire hazard reduction had been done in the area, despite good models provided by the Colorado State Forest Service over the past 30 years. A misguided sense of tree preservation inhibited both forest health and fuel reduction efforts by forestry and fire officials.
The often stated (but rarely heard) part of the defensible space message is: there are no guarantees. The team recommends messaging that conveys “risk management” as opposed to “risk elimination.” A new concept of “Survivable Space” will be introduced in this report.
Firefighter safety and effectiveness were jeopardized by a lack of understanding and appreciation of the risks firefighters are exposed to during wildland fires. The team’s survey of the first and second wave of firefighters who responded to the fire shows a high level of frustration with WUI dwellers who failed to provide sufficient defensible space and structural hardening. Responses can be summarized as “How can we be expected to save your home if you’ve done nothing on your own behalf?” It is well worth the time of all readers to view all firefighter comments included in Appendix C.
Community wide mitigation was found to be most effective in managing wildfire; even during extreme burning conditions. The community of Cathedral Pines was assessed as part of this report. The fire burned through two-thirds of the community and resulted in one home loss. In areas where ladder fuels were pruned and tree stands thinned, tree losses were minimized. Wide roadways with roadside areas free of trees served as fire breaks and helped keep the fire on the ground and out of tree crowns. Tree losses were heaviest in areas abutting unthinned forests. Firefighters were able to safely defend structures as the fire swept through the community. The full assessment, with photos, can be found in Appendix A. Two other communities, High Forest Ranch and Black Forest Reserve, will also be discussed in more detail as a partially managed forest communities.
State School Land Section 16 was within the burned area with minimal destruction of the forest resources. This one square mile area had been managed over the past 30 years to improve forest health and reduce wildfire behavior. These treatments proved effective and serve as a good model in the Ponderosa Pine fuel type. The full assessment is found in Appendix B.
“Willful blindness” will be discussed as a common mindset of the general Black Forest community. Common excuses property owners give for not mitigating their fuels or adapting their structures to a wildfire prone environment are included in this report.
This assessment has been prepared to assist the Governor, legislature, local governments, fire departments, wildfire mitigation specialist, and the citizens of Colorado with the task of understanding and changing behavior necessary for the thousands of Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) dwellers to co-exist with the often harsh realities of wildfire.