Lessons learned about survival of structures during Waldo Canyon Fire

Lessons Learned from Waldo Canyon Fire
Lessons Learned from Waldo Canyon Fire
Lessons Learned from Waldo Canyon Fire, cover. Click to enlarge

The Fire Adapted Communities Coalition has prepared an excellent report titled “Lessons Learned from Waldo Canyon”. Written by representatives from the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, U.S. Forest Service, International Association of Fire Chiefs, and the NFPA, it documents factors that affected the destruction or survival of structures during the Waldo Canyon Fire, a fire that destroyed 346 Colorado Springs homes in June of 2012. This document, along with the Texas report, “Common Denominators of Home Destruction”, could be very useful resources for communities and home owners that desire to mitigate potential damage before wildfires threaten their wildland-urban interface.

Often you will see media reports using words like “random” or “miracle” to describe how some homes are burned while others survive a wildfire that burns into a community. It is neither — it is science — and fuel reduction, building materials, screening off vents, plugging holes between roof tiles, a lack of combustible decks, the actions your neighbor takes or does not take, and many other factors. And did I mention fuel reduction?

While the city of Colorado Springs and their fire department has received criticism for their lack of operational preparedness and training for wildfires, as well as their actions during the Waldo Canyon Fire, this report indicates the city had a program that resulted in some positive outcomes related to fuel mitigation and home owner education about how to reduce the chances of structures burning during a wildfire event.

Here is a sample of some of the conclusions identified in the report:

Observations on building design and materials improvements and maintenance could have reduced losses:

  • Ember ignition via ignition of combustible materials on, in or near the home was confirmed by the surveys. This reaffirms the serious risk posed by ember ignitions to properties during wildfires. This reinforces the importance of maintaining an effective defensible space and regularly removing debris from areas on and near the home.
  • Home-to-home fire spread was again a major issue, as with prior post-fire field investigations. When it occurred, it was dependent on at least one wildland fire-to-home ignition and then home spacing and slope / terrain. Home-to-home fire spread was attributed to a relatively large number of home losses in this survey.
  • Wildland fire-to-home ignition was influenced by location of home on slope and fuels treatment(s) or lack of on the slope leading to the home.
  • A building can be hardened with noncombustible materials, for example, but it is also necessary to incorporate appropriate construction details, which will help ensure that the protections offered by those materials is not by-passed.
  • Individual homeowners must take responsibility for fortifying their property against wildfire damage by taking appropriate measures to incorporate noncombustible building materials and construction details.

Observations on the role of fuels management and landscape vegetation and features:

  • Past fuel treatments by mastication in heavy, continuous, mature Gambel oak retained multi-season effectiveness for reducing wildfire spread. Two- and three-year-old oak treatments did not carry fire. Oak leaves were scorched, but did not typically burn.
  • Hardened landscape barriers such as noncombustible retaining walls, paths and gravel borders were effective in stopping fire in lighter fuel types.
  • Pruning and thinning of ladder fuels in Gambel oak clumps, as a Firewise practice by homeowners, appeared to be effective in keeping fire on the ground and reducing crown fire potential.
  • Firewise landscape plants, primarily deciduous trees and shrubs, were scorched but did not burn when exposed to heat from adjacent crowning fuels.
  • Landscaping fencing contributed to fire spread from adjacent native areas to structures. Split rail and cedar privacy fencing both led fire to structures.

The video below is very well done.

More information on Wildfire Today about the Waldo Canyon Fire.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills.

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3 thoughts on “Lessons learned about survival of structures during Waldo Canyon Fire”

  1. I’m anxiously awaiting the comments from “Mr. Pithy Crap” about this report! Hopefully they will be more insightful than his last post?

  2. Where can I buy a copy of “Lessons learned rom thew Walso Canyon fire”. Our HOA would benifit from this information.

    1. You can download it for free and print it yourself. Or, you could get a print shop, Office Max, or Office Depot to print multiple copies for you. HERE is a link to the document.

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