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Colorado Springs Learns To Live With Fire


Colorado is often the site of devastating forest fires, but the city of Colorado Springs has been hit particularly hard as of late. In the span of just one year, more than 800 homes have been destroyed from wildfires in and around the city. This time last year, it was the Waldo Canyon fire, and now it's the Black Forest fire. NPR's Kirk Siegler spent the week in Colorado Springs and sent this report.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: For the second year in a row, the Colorado Springs area has been beset by large, destructive wildfires. These blazes have blackened more than 50 square miles and four people have died. But talk to folks living in and around this metro area of 600,000 people and there's a sense that wildfires just come with the territory. Take Dennis Johnson.

DENNIS JOHNSON: We accept what life deals.

SIEGLER: He turned out at a fire briefing this week to check to see whether anyone could tell him if his home was standing. Like a lot of people in Colorado, Johnson is a transplant. He moved here from suburban Chicago in the '90s. He was drawn to the scenic Black Forest where subdivisions and small horse farms mingle with open space and pine trees.

JOHNSON: We may have lost it all, but that's material.

SIEGLER: Material things, Johnson says, he can replace. But even with this growing acceptance of wildfires, there are still major concerns for emergency officials. It's their job to deal with reality of a city and its suburbs steadily expanding into the woods.

BRETT LACEY: Well if you look, we've got 36,000-plus addresses in our hillside. So, that's a significant risk.

SIEGLER: Brett Lacey is the fire marshal for Colorado Springs. He says about one-quarter of the entire city has been built out into forests that are now at extremely high risk for wildfires.

LACEY: We can all live and do whatever we want to do in America - that's why we love it here. We moved to the hillside because we like the hillside. But the fact of the matter is we've got to come to terms with, what risk are we willing to continue to take?

SIEGLER: In 2003, the city started banning wood-shake roofs and requiring homeowners to clear trees and brush around their houses. After last summer's Waldo Canyon Fire, that buffer requirement was expanded. All new homes now also have to be built with ignition-resistant materials, like stucco, and no more wooden porches. Passing these wasn't easy in a city famous for its anti-government politics. And the fire department says it still has the most success using incentives to get private property owners to do fire mitigation voluntarily. But the fact is a lot of neighborhoods here are still at high risk, and this poses logistical challenges for a fire department with just 20 engines.


SIEGLER: The city's emergency management director, Bret Waters knows this firsthand. It was his job to coordinate a mass evacuation of 30,000 people last year when the Waldo Canyon fire exploded during rush hour.

BRET WATERS: This is really where the fire came down.

SIEGLER: Waters steers his SUV through the Mountain Shadows neighborhood where almost everything was leveled. We're driving down, by the way, a very steep road.

WATERS: Yeah, this was all evacuated.

SIEGLER: And it was hard to get the fire trucks in, while so many people were trying to flee. But Waters says things mostly went OK 'cause there had been emergency drills for residents up here.

WATERS: They would take their things, they would drive off and they would actually go to a center and get briefed. And so we had warned extensively about something like this happening.

SIEGLER: The Waldo Canyon fire, and to some extent, this week's Black Forest fire, are case studies of the new type of Western wildfire. The blazes may start in the national forest but they end up in an urban setting where the homes provide fuel for the fire to grow. Getting city dwellers acquainted with this new reality is still one of the biggest challenges facing fire officials.

CARLA ALBERS: So, this whole street, if you stand at the corner here, was all gone and...

SIEGLER: A year ago, Carla Albers lost her home in the Waldo Canyon fire. This week, she was just getting settled into the new home she built on the lot next door. Until last year, she says it was hard to picture a wildfire coming through here. It's a neighborhood of modest homes built in the 1980s - streetlamps, gutters, fire hydrants.

ALBERS: To me, where this street is, we're not that close to the forest.

SIEGLER: But her new yard is xeriscaped with stones and desert plants, and the pine trees are gone. Albers says she likely would have rebuilt with the new wildfire-resistant materials even if the new codes hadn't passed, mainly she says, because of the trauma she went through. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Colorado Springs.


MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.