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HIGHLANDS RANCH — Twenty years ago, when the kids were grown and they were downsizing, Jim and Bernie Remley bought this comfortable suburban ranch-style home with picturesque, north-facing views off the back deck to Longs Peak and beyond.

Open space stretches for acres past their back fence, where horse trails wind around grassy fields that usually go brown by July, along with lots of highly flammable shrubs called rabbitbrush. Jim says they’ve seen five fires in these adjacent fields, none of them big, with the closest about a quarter-mile away.

“But the last fire we watched from here you could tell it was hitting rabbitbrush because the flames would shoot up 15 or 20 feet — just incredible,” he says. “So, I keep looking at all this and thinking, ‘Holy cow. Are we sitting ducks here or what?’”

Bernie Remley, an elderly woman in a red shirt, leans on a railing, covering her mouth with her hand, while Jim Remley, an elderly man in a checkered shirt, stands behind her. They are outside on a deck overlooking a field.
Jim and Bernie Remley, pictured June 26, 2024, have lived in their Highlands Ranch home for 20 years, but are increasingly worried about the surrounding area’s susceptibility to wildfires. The couple has installed paved rock to replace the grass along the side of their house as a barrier to potential fires, and planted more fire-resistant tree varieties throughout their landscaping. (Olivia Sun, Hablame24 via Report for America)

Conversations with their son, a Denver firefighter whose unit responded to the devastating 2022 Marshall fire in Boulder County, pushed Jim Remley to dig deeper. He happened upon an online tool, one of many that have sprung up amid climate-driven concerns over wildfire, that crunches multiple data sets to offer property owners an instant risk assessment. First Street Foundation offers a property look-up product called Risk Factor that provides metrics for a variety of climate-related risks, including wildfire.

“So I put in my address,” he says, “and up came this thing that basically says that within the next 30 years, this property has a 25.7% chance of being destroyed or damaged by wildfire. I'm 81 years old. And you start thinking that you're living in a high-risk neighborhood. And it's not because of gangs. It's not because of gunfire. It's natural stuff that you can't really control.”

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In a nationwide 2022 analysis, First Street projected that nearly a half-million additional Colorado homes, businesses and public buildings beyond the current 1 million face increased risk of wildfire over the next 30 years — at 19%, the largest increase in the nation. Significantly, the most vulnerable areas weren’t the forests, where monthslong infernos have scorched wide swaths of the landscape. Rather, they’re in growing suburban counties like El Paso to the south, Larimer to the north and Douglas, where the Remleys live, in the Denver metro area — areas where wildlands rub up against civilization in the so-called wildland-urban interface, or WUI (pronounced woo-ee in the vernacular).

For Remley, seeing his own risk in black and white came as a shock and, over the last couple of years since he ran the numbers, he’s been particularly attuned to the threat. After consulting with a local mitigation expert, he started making small changes to his property.

He took out some bushes next to his house. He added additional outside faucets and garden hose. He hired a neighborhood teen to help him replace highly flammable landscaping mulch with fire resistant rock.

But while that may harden his property on the fringe of the wildland, it’s just one small slice on the vulnerable border of meandering rows of a densely populated community. What about all the neighbors? Though newly armed with data, Remley wasn’t sure what to do next.

The Remleys’ home is adjacent to around 100 acres of grassland and prairie, much of it containing rabbitbrush. The couple has replaced grass alongside their house with fire-resistant paved rock. (Olivia Sun, Hablame24 via Report for America)

“I'm kind of reluctant to go next door with this and say, ‘Guess what?’” he says. “But I also think, holy cow, maybe I should because they don't know this. And should I just take a copy of that and give it to everybody on the street?”

As the wildfire threat on the WUI becomes more than broad warnings from climate scientists and gripping news accounts from too close by, more Coloradans are accessing easily available databases and mapping tools, seeking ways the firehose of information can translate to collective action.

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A stone barn with three garage doors stands in a dry, barren field at sunset, with a trailer and truck parked nearby.
A residence’s garage unit at U.S. 85 and Chatridge Ct. is seen on Jan 20, 2022. The Chatridge 3 grass fire in December of 2021 swept east up the hill from U.S. 85, potentially threatening 100,000 people near Highlands Ranch before being contained. (Olivia Sun, Hablame24)

Colorado-based risk tools

In recent years, Colorado experts have taken significant steps toward developing a selection of public resources, including Live Wildfire Ready, which features mitigation tips, that launched in April 2023 and already has logged about 11,000 page views. Within that site, the WUI Risk Viewer offers a broad assessment of a location’s wildfire risk.

Much more layered and detailed risk assessment tools have been developed through the Colorado State Forest Service, a project originally funded by the state legislature in 2012. Initially, the tools relied on data that was updated every five years. Now, additional funding allows for updates every three years.

The increased frequency means more reliable results as new models can account for new housing construction and factors like shifting fuel sources. Two risk assessment tools were applied to the Colorado Forest Atlas platform: the Wildfire Risk Viewer, a less complex model designed with property owners in mind, has attracted more than 15,000 active users since April 1; the Wildfire Risk Reduction Planner, geared to wildland fire professionals, has seen more than 1,100 active users.

The newest versions of the mapping have a higher resolution than the earlier ones — from 30-meter resolution to a finer 20-meter resolution that, among other advantages, allows for zeroing in more precisely on the fuel types in a given area. Tweaking and customizing fuel models, with input from a group of fuels experts in the wake of the East Troublesome and Cameron Peak fires, led to greater overall accuracy in predicting wildfire risk, says Chad Julian, a wildfire mitigation expert with the Colorado State Forest Service.

“Fuel models are a way to classify what fuel is present, how much is there, what its shape looks like, how tall it is, are there volatile chemicals in it, like some of our shrubs have, that make it more flammable,” Julian explains. “Once we can classify that, we can model fire behavior on it with fire modeling software to understand how fast a fire might burn through that fuel, or how intense the fire might be when it's burning in that fuel.”

Much of the data that goes into the Wildfire Risk Viewer and Wildfire Risk Reduction Planner — including information on building damage potential and defensible space, which is based on research from California wildfires — is geared toward engaging broader communities. The tools deliberately do not show risk to individual structures or the mitigating quality of their defensible spaces, instead dividing the landscape into roughly 28-acre hexagons that receive an average composite score.

“So you won't know what your home's specific score is, but we chose that in these higher density areas for a reason,” Julian says. “The density of homes is so close — like on the Marshall fire is a good example — that you don't want to look at individuals when you're in these higher density communities. You want to see it from a community perspective.”

A photo of the Waldo Fire of 2012 left a house standing on a block in Carla Albers’ neighborhood in northwest Colorado Springs. Albers documented the destruction and recovery in scrapbooks and uses the photos to show victims that recovery is possible. (Olivia Sun, Hablame24)

Individuals who use the tools and see themselves clustered within a particularly at-risk hexagon — he uses Highlands Ranch and Boulder as examples — may be more inclined to engage with neighbors and make a more concerted effort to collaborate on mitigation. Individual homeowners, he adds, typically underestimate their risk before they see the level of detail available on the mapping tools.

“So it's probably going to scare them a little bit,” Julian says. “It's probably going to get their attention. But there's just going to be a percentage of folks that are never going to engage no matter what they see on the screen.”

Encouraging collective action

Julian observes that one key to gaining buy-in to wildfire mitigation can be as simple as approaching it from an attitude of engaging rather than “educating” the community. In other words, instead of telling residents what they should be doing, mitigation professionals can meet with them to identify the problems. Communities that help define their own challenges tend to be more invested in pursuing solutions.

He recalls receiving a phone call last year from a concerned resident in the south metro area who wanted to talk about wildfire risk to that stretch of the wildland urban interface. For the caller, it was the devastation of the Marshall fire that had heightened concern about the potential impact on another bedroom community.

That “entry point” for Julian led to him giving a bigger presentation for the entire community.

“This individual had a lot of fear about small things that she saw within the neighborhood that maybe could lead to fire risk,” he recalls. “What I was able to do, though, was come and present to the HOA and show them that, in reality, they're in a better position than most neighborhoods I go visit.”

He pointed out that the paved road that bordered the open space beyond the development provided a natural firebreak, in contrast to many others that feature homesites backing directly to fuel-rich fields — areas where dry grass, brush and other flammable materials could offer wildfire a direct path to the built environment.

The community also had changed its fencing materials to cement fiberboard rather than highly flammable wood, which could be what Julian termed a “game changer,” especially in light of the finding that wood fencing was a predominant mechanism that helped fire move quickly from house to house through Louisville and Superior neighborhoods during the Marshall fire.

A firefighter tries to put out a house that's on fire
A burnt neighborhood after the Marshall fire with charred trees, destroyed houses, and debris scattered around. A damaged patio with scorched furniture is in the foreground. The sky is overcast with lingering smoke.

LEFT: A firefighter tries to save a house during the Marshall fire on Dec. 30, 2021. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to Hablame24.) RIGHT: The next day, smoke still filled the neighborhood as homes and vehicles sat destroyed. (Hugh Carey, Hablame24)

A firefighter tries to put out a house that's on fire
A burnt neighborhood after the Marshall fire with charred trees, destroyed houses, and debris scattered around. A damaged patio with scorched furniture is in the foreground. The sky is overcast with lingering smoke.

TOP: A firefighter tries to save a house during the Marshall fire on Dec. 30, 2021. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to Hablame24.) BOTTOM: The next day, smoke still filled the neighborhood as homes and vehicles sat destroyed. (Hugh Carey, Hablame24)

“I told them you guys have changed that entire risk calculus by a choice you've made at the HOA level here,” he says. “So I wanted to reinforce for them how good of a decision they made there. They're at a very different risk now than other subdivisions that have the 6-foot-tall cedar fences.”

Julian matched the information he saw through remote sensing on the mapping tools with what he observed on the ground and found that the highest risk areas did indeed match up.

“So I could give them a real direct recommendation that this is going to be the area where it probably has the highest likelihood of squirting through the interface and getting into the built environment,” he says, “and once it gets in here, then it's kind of like a Marshall fire. It doesn't matter how it got in, it'll behave the same way once it's in here.”

Since the development was only 9 years old at the time, he cautioned residents about caring for the conifers that had been planted in many of the common areas along with natural grasses. Though the trees are young and relatively small, he told them, proper maintenance on both the trees and the grass — “limbing up” the trees, or trimming the lowest branches, and keeping the native grass beneath them short — the community can enjoy the features of that landscaping without the risk normally associated with them.

In WUI communities adjacent to grassland, Julian notes, the interface with the built community is relatively narrow, which means that fire transfers over relatively short distances — say, 30 or 40 feet. That in turn means that the first three rows of homes essentially make mitigation decisions that can have impact for the entire community.

A wildfire that transfers into those first three rows can quickly become an urban fire — a separate event like those that unfolded in the Marshall fire and Lahaina in Hawaii — with the capacity to transfer much greater distances than a grassland fire.

“So we're starting to see how we can get that kind of messaging out there of how important it is that folks in the first three rows of homes that interface with that grassland to work in unison,” Julian says, “so that we don't have a wildfire transfer in and then become an urban fire like we saw in Marshall.”

Research-based findings of mitigation

Proliferation of real-life wildfires has taught costly lessons about communities’ vulnerability. But researchers also can replicate the dangerous conditions in a controlled environment to directly test materials and measures that might prove effective in mitigation.

In a partially enclosed structure in Chester County, South Carolina, artificial ember showers pelt full-size models of houses constructed of starkly different materials — some fire resistant, some not. The embers either trigger bursts of crackling flames and melting gutters or batter more resilient materials without major damage.

Since 2010, the research center for the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, a nonprofit scientific research and communications organization, has tested building materials and components against simulated wildfire conditions. Supported by the insurance industry, the IBHS bills itself as an independent operation that seeks to create more resilient communities.

Homes in a simulated wildfire

At its research facility in Chester County, South Carolina, the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, a nonprofit scientific research and communications organization, tests building materials and components against simulated wildfire conditions. In this video, an artificial ember shower pelts models of houses constructed of starkly different materials — some fire resistant, some not. The experiment also shows flammability of a variety of landscape materials. (Provided by the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety)

Faraz Hedayati, the lead research engineer, has most recently focused his study on wind-driven, building-to-building fire spread, and even the relatively small mitigation measures that can make the difference between a home’s destruction and survival.

“Generally speaking, the hazard of the threat from the wildfire to communities can be divided into two categories, the threat from embers and flames,” Hedayati says. “And the post-event investigations show that most of the ember-driven fires are the driving factor of loss.”

In the testing facility, researchers expose different types of buildings or building components to an artificially produced ember shower, and then note the vulnerabilities.

“When we are looking at building components, for example, for decks, we know that the under-deck area is very vulnerable, and people often use that area for storage,” Hedayati says. “And then when embers ignite the fuel under the deck, that can start a fire that grows vertically and ignites the decks.

“And then, typically, decks are against glass, a window or a sliding door, which is more vulnerable than a wall. And then the glass breaks, embers can get in, and then the chain of events happens again.”

In a report published last April, Hedayati and his colleagues emphasized that a two-tiered hardening strategy is best employed to reduce the chances that a home will ignite, by enacting measures to guard against both embers and flames.

For instance, fire resistant roof covering materials, gutters free of debris and vent openings protected with a 1/8-inch or finer noncombustible mesh screen can all help guard against wind-driven embers. Fences made of noncombustible material also can break the path of a fire rather than provide an easy entry way to a property.

Hedayati spent five days in the field at the Marshall fire in Superior, which he describes as the first area where grassland touched the densely-built urban environment. Mitigation measures could have slowed the process.

“So the piece about smaller things making a difference?” he says. “Yes, if people do that, they can give the first responders a chance to do their job and save the structures.”

And while individual measures can be effective, developments with many homes in close proximity benefit from a more cohesive approach.

“When you have these dense communities, neighbors need to talk,” he says, “and they need to understand that the risk is shared, and they need to work together to reduce the risk.”

How does insurance fit into mitigation?

Discussion of wildfire risk inevitably leads to concerns about rising insurance rates and even the availability of coverage.

“Not only do we have escalating wildfire and hail catastrophes,” says Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Association, an industry nonprofit representing insurers in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, “but we also have more homes in the path of those catastrophes.”

Factor in the rising cost of paying claims, she adds, and thanks to spikes in everything from lumber to labor, Coloradans find themselves “at the perfect tipping point” where pressure accrues on both the availability and affordability of property insurance.

The most effective solutions, Walker says, can be found in risk reduction — and just as there’s data to show vulnerability to climate-related catastrophes like wildfire and hail, the science illustrates how homeowners can tip the odds in their favor. The next step is scaling up mitigation efforts and making them measurable — a quantifiable demonstration that their effectiveness warrants lower rates.

One step toward scaling up fire mitigation was the 2023 creation of the Colorado Resiliency Code Board, which seeks adaptability and preparedness amid changing environmental and other conditions.

An aerial view of flames in a grassy area with smoke in the sky. Fire trucks are parked nearby.
Grass fires have threatened the meadows and homes near Chatridge Court and US 85 three times in five years, and firefighters work hard to keep flames from moving over the hill into thousands of homes in Highlands Ranch. These photos are from the 2020 Chatridge 2 fire. (South Metro Fire Rescue file photos)

“We need to be looking at how to scale up mitigation, and one way we know that we have to do that is through building codes, because then it gets done,” Walker says. “It certainly gets done on new construction. And then what are we doing to harden and mitigate existing construction? So those are sort of a parallel track to that we're grappling with.”

Partly due to Colorado’s status as a “home rule” state, where local regulations supersede state law, Colorado has resisted a statewide building code. Barring legislation to change that, another option is enacting community-wide wildfire mitigation programs such as Boulder County’s Wildfire Partners, a national model that’s being replicated across the state.

A multifaceted approach to mitigation

Boulder County’s involvement in wildfire mitigation dates back to 1989, in the wake of the Black Tiger fire in the foothills northwest of Boulder, regarded as the first wildland urban interface fire in Colorado. That fire scorched more than 2,000 acres over four days and destroyed 44 homes and other structures within a few hours. Although dwarfed by more recent fires, Black Tiger at the time ranked as the state’s most destructive in terms of property loss, which totaled $10 million.

In 2014, the county developed Wildfire Partners, a public-private partnership that program manager Jim Webster calls “a new approach, a more intensive approach to wildfire mitigation than we'd been practicing before that period.” He adds that the program, which includes education and outreach as well as “home hardening” assistance, has grown over the years to encompass other programs and services for the unincorporated portion of the county.

The program offers mitigation assistance at the property parcel level, such as individual, customized action plans done by an on-site expert, which then can lead to certification — which in turn can factor into a property’s insurability.

An assessment involves a mitigation specialist visiting the site and spending two to four hours “looking at every tree, every vulnerability, every pathway” that results in a checklist of action items that must be completed to earn certification.

A solitary wooden cabin stands on a hillside with sparse young trees, with a small town visible in the distance under an smokey sky.
Residences at U.S. 85 and Chatridge Ct. are seen on Jan 20, 2022. The Chatridge 3 grass fire in December of 2021 swept east up the hill from U.S. 85, potentially threatening 100,000 people near Highlands Ranch before being contained. (Olivia Sun, Hablame24)

“Some people's checklist is one item, it takes them a month,” Webster explains. “Some people's checklist is 20 or 30 items, and it takes them two years. But essentially, you're reaching that standard to show you've done mitigation.”

Once completed, the program delivers a yard sign and a certificate to the homeowner that can be used to help procure insurance coverage or even serve as a selling point in a subsequent sale. Webster notes that the goal of certification in the western part of Boulder County was to help people obtain insurance, but the program doesn’t directly impact rates.

“Other certification programs are coming,” Webster says, “but we were sort of the pioneers there.”

Wildfire Partners also operates at the community level, where neighbors become involved, and at the landscape level, which can include areas like open space or larger acreage.

“There are actions every homeowner in a high wildfire risk area can take to reduce their risk,” Webster says. “We have to match our message to meet each homeowner's specific situation and meet people where they are. Some individuals in a very small lot will be limited in what they can do, but there's still some things. So it's a very nuanced message.

“That's why we have to be sophisticated and can't do a cookie-cutter report approach and expect everybody to do the exact same thing,” he adds. “People are in different situations, and they won't take action if it doesn't make sense to them.”

The 20-year goal for the program was to perform wildfire mitigation on 6,000 homes. Over the 10 years Wildfire Partners has been in effect, it has accounted for more than 3,500 initial home assessments, which have led to more than 1,500 certifications and 274 recertifications. Emphasis initially was placed on the western foothills and mountains, given the area’s fire history, but since the Marshall fire, the program is working on plans to perform wildfire mitigation on a majority of residential properties on the eastern end of the county.

On average, homeowners took about 14 months from the time of their home assessment to achieve certification, with an average of a little more than 100 hours of mitigation work performed, according to the program’s 10-year metrics. The average cost for those certified was $7,394.62. Financial assistance through the program averaged about $430 per homeowner, including some who received no assistance.

Insurance expert Walker emphasizes the importance of two factors in protecting against wildfire damages: increasing participation in mitigation efforts and confirming its effectiveness based on science like that being done at the IBHS facility in South Carolina.

“The science is there,” she says. “What we really need to do is get homeowners there, communities there, and then support these programs and fund these programs. So it's going to be a combination of WUI building codes, the right grant funding to help with home hardening and mitigation, the right buy-in from the homeowner.”

In the wake of a rising wildfire threat that recognizes no boundaries of time or space in a time of climate change, that path to mitigating the risks — individually as well as community-wide, can seem daunting.

“It does at times feel that way,” state forest service expert Julian says, “but because I know the things we can do that are more simple to change outcomes for people, I'm hopeful we can find a way to engage with them, instead of educate them, and tell them what problems are present and what they need to do to fix them. I think a lot of those folks are ready for that kind of engagement.”

Type of Story: News

Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Kevin Simpson is a co-founder of Hablame24 and a general assignment writer and editor. He also oversees the Sun’s literary feature, SunLit, and the site’s cartoonists. A St. Louis native and graduate of the University of Missouri’s...