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Pulling Our Weight


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1) Burn Baby Burn
Charred trees line both sides of Sugarloaf Road as Andrew Notbohm, Boulder County’s Wildfire
Mitigation Specialist, and I drive further into the foothills. The damage dates to the devastating 1989 Black Tiger fire, but it may as well have happened yesterday. Boulder can see up to 100 fires per year, mostly in its Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) areas along the Front Range, and reminders of the carnage—skeletal
ponderosa pines and blackened Douglas firs—are inescapable up here.

The pavement turns to potholed dirt, and we climb Primos Road to the house that Notbohm is inspecting for wildfire vulnerabilities. Opening a binder on the hood of the truck, he shows me a black and white aerial photo of the property. “Creating a 100 foot defensible space around the home—” he points to a circular demarcation on the grainy picture “—reduces the risk of radiant heat.” With that, Notbohm gets to work.

Sporting a hard-cased iPad with a Kevlar-looking hand strap, he goes methodically around the outside of the home to isolate chinks in its wildfire armor. Pine needles have gathered in the gutters, creating a fuel bed. Just above, an overhang of roof forms a heat trap, the perfect nook to gather flying embers, or “firebrands,” that can travel for miles ahead of a fire. The list goes on.

But here’s the scariest part: compared to most, this home is actually prepared for a wildfire. The owners are replacing the wood siding in favor of non-combustible concrete Hardie Board, and the yard is free of flammable detritus. Most importantly, they actively reached out to Notbohm’s team, wanting to make a model home for the neighborhood.

Homeowners with this level of awareness are key. Overhauling Boulder’s wildfire vulnerabilities on a larger scale can’t come soon enough, given the county’s demographic changes and an increased risk of fire. Lured by the simplicity (and luxury) of mountain living, the foothills have seen an upswing in housing stock, all while fires have increased in intensity.

In the 1960s, Colorado wildfires burned an average of 17.88 acres; by the 2000s it had more than doubled, to 39.12. Ironically, the spike is partly due to more effective fire suppression techniques: the low-severity fires that used to eliminate dry brush from forests are now avoided, meaning wooden fuel builds up, laying in wait for high-severity burns to come through. A good case in point is the Fern Lake fire in Rocky Mountain National Park, which burned 3,498 acres over the course of several months in 2012-2013 under a layer of snow. Fern Lake fed off of nearly inexhaustible biomass fuel (sometimes 20 feet deep). Trying to put it out was “like spitting on a campfire,” according to RMNP spokesperson Kyle Patterson.

Prevention, then, is paramount. But what does prevention entail? Here’s a not-so-shortlist: fire-wary home design, non-combustible building materials, community outreach, informed landscaping techniques and, most importantly, non-complacency.

“It’s not a government problem, or a fire department problem—it’s a community problem,” Notbohm told me. “It’s about collaborating and being innovative with all parties.”

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