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Colorado looks to expand building codes as climate change increases risk of wildfires

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Colorado suburbs that burned last month were not considered at high risk for wildfire. The flames were fueled by record warm temperatures and drought, things that climate scientists say are likely to lead to more fires in a hotter world. Now, officials in both of those suburban towns say they're considering building codes to protect homes. Colorado Public Radio's Michael Elizabeth Sakas reports.

MICHAEL ELIZABETH SAKAS, BYLINE: Samantha Shelnutt never imagined her community near Denver could burn. But here in Superior, where cleanup crews are starting to remove what's left of her neighborhood, hundreds of homes built in the '90s were wiped out. Shelnutt that saw the flames spread from just a few miles away in the nearby grassy open spaces used for recreation and agriculture.

SAMANTHA SHELNUTT: Obviously, wildfires happen, forest areas get burned down, but no, to be in such a close community with our houses so close together, I never thought it would burn down.

SAKAS: Even as she and her family were rushing to evacuate, smoke and ash filling their car, she didn't think the Marshall Fire would destroy their home. The neighborhood is near a major highway and multiple shopping centers. A close-by Target Superstore caught fire. Shelnutt's husband Wayne says his family likely won't rebuild in the same neighborhood or in the same way.

WAYNE: All of our houses are basically just made out of wood and sticks. And unfortunately, they were all so close together. And, you know, they probably just did fall like a little intricate dominoes set.

SAKAS: Boulder County, where the fires destroyed more than a thousand homes in all, did adopt stricter building codes after a forest fire in the '80s. Now, new homes in some areas need to be built with fire-resistant roofing and siding. Vents need a mesh cover so embers can't get through. And 3 feet of gravel is required around the home's foundation. But none of that applied to the Shelnutt's home.

Jim Webster is with Wildfire Partners, the program that helps residents follow the regulations. He says Boulder County's wildfire rules only apply to the forested foothills and mountains in areas outside of cities and towns.

JIM WEBSTER: They face the highest risk of wildfire. There are obviously is wildfire risk on the plains, but that is not the focus of our regulations and our voluntary programs.

SAKAS: After this latest fire, now Colorado's most destructive on record, Webster says Boulder County might expand its wildfire building codes to grassy urban areas. But even if it did, many homes are located in the counties, cities and towns that would have to adopt their own codes. Webster says that will need public and political support, and the Marshall Fire is a wake-up call that grassy areas are dangerous, too.

WEBSTER: And now people from around the state and around the country as well will be looking at the needs to increase our wildfire mitigation and preparedness efforts in grassland systems as well.

SAKAS: Expanding development in the warming climate or raising wildfire risk in places around the country. In a recent change, the National Fire Protection Association is now pushing for states like Colorado to adopt at least minimum statewide building codes. Michele Steinberg is the wildfire division director. She says more homes are burning down today than they were 30 years ago.

MICHELE STEINBERG: And we know that wildfires and their increasing frequency, intensity, the fire service can't do this alone. Volunteer activity can't do this alone. We were missing the government responsibility, the enforcers, the codes and standards.

SAKAS: Steinberg says no building code is a guarantee, but decades of research shows that construction rules for homes and communities can limit the damage of urban wildfires. In the past in Colorado, homebuilders associations helped kill a proposal for statewide wildfire building codes. But after devastating wildfires in 2020 and now this, some Democratic state lawmakers say they might push for them again.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Elizabeth Sakas in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.