- Sean Cayton
- Residents watch as the Waldo Canyon Fire rolls toward the city in June 2012.
John Spengler lives in a densely vegetated neighborhood abutting Stratton Open Space. The narrow and winding roads are shrouded by foliage, as are the properties that line them. So when he spotted flames in the neighborhood in August 2014, he almost panicked.
He says it turned out to be a neighbor's fire pit, with flames shooting 6 feet high and tossing sparks into the wind.
According to Spengler, he asked the residents to extinguish the fire and when they refused, he called the Colorado Springs Fire Department. Firefighters responded and the fire was put out, he says.
Spengler has reported three subsequent incidents in which a fire pit was ablaze, most recently on June 5, and wonders if the city has the proper ordinances to prevent a catastrophic fire like the one that struck the city on June 26, 2012, claiming two lives and wiping out 347 homes in Colorado Springs. The Waldo Canyon Fire burned for more than two weeks and consumed more than 18,000 acres of forest land.
The cause of that fire, which started west of the city, remains a mystery. But as the city marks the Waldo's fifth anniversary, it's worth revisiting what's legal and what isn't when it comes to burning.
It surprised Spengler to learn that burning in fire pits within the city limits is legal, as long as certain conditions are met. He also was surprised to learn the city hasn't cited anyone for a violation in recent memory.
"If we get a call to our office of someone who is concerned of being at risk," says Colorado Springs Fire Department Deputy Fire Marshal Kris Cooper, "we'll send an inspector to the site and have a conversation with the complainant and the property owner or both. We've gotten great compliance."
Spengler says a fire official told him the homeowners were cited for burning unauthorized materials and for burning too close to a structure after he reported a fire in a pit that sat within an outdoor alcove of a neighbor's house within 5 feet of walls on three sides.
"They dropped their jaw," he says of fire officials. "They couldn't believe someone was going to have a fire so close to the structure."
The home's residents could not be reached for comment, but Cooper says no citations were issued. Although Spengler says the flames at times were over 6 feet high, Cooper notes city code on burning doesn't have a flame height limit.
"The code does not prohibit people from having outdoor fireplaces or outdoor fires on their property," he says. "It gives direction of size of fires and clearance for combustibles. If you want to buy an outdoor fireplace, you are welcome to do so, and you can have that on your property."
The city's regulations fall into four types of outdoor fires:
• Bonfires require a permit and must be at least 50 feet away from a structure or combustible materials.
• Open burning is never allowed.
• Recreational fires are those where materials other than rubbish are burned and not contained in a permanent fixture, such as an outdoor fireplace or grill. The fuel area must be smaller than three feet in diameter and less than two feet in height. Also, such fires must be at least 25 feet from a structure or combustible materials.
• Portable or fixed outdoor fireplaces must be at least 15 feet from a structure or combustible materials except for one- and two-family dwellings.
If burn restrictions or a ban is imposed, no burning is allowed.
Cooper says if a resident cut down a tree and chopped it up, he or she could burn the wood in a fire pit if the regulations are followed. Fire pits don't have to be covered by a screen to subdue sparks, he says.
While Cooper estimates the Fire Department receives one call per week about possible burning violations, firefighters find residents cooperative when they spell out the requirements. A resident who's been told the rules but violates them again can expect a citation, Cooper says, which carries a jail sentence of up to 189 days and a fine up to $2,500.
Spengler expresses astonishment that no citations were issued to his neighbors and that up to 2 feet of fuel space is allowed, which Spengler guesses would make for a good-sized fire.
It's easy to understand why Spengler is alert to fire and its destructive potential. The Waldo Fire drew attention to the city's vast wildland-urban interface area, which, since that fire, the city has been busy thinning.
According to a news release, the city's gains toward reducing fire risk include mitigating 7,809 acres and removing more than 2,300 tons of material, building relationships with 112 homeowners associations and community groups to educate them on fire risks, conducting several evacuation drills, and holding 228 training exercises with local responding agencies.
Moreover, the city adopted the Hillside Ignition-Resistant Ordinance, which dictates how homes are constructed within the wildland urban interface to protect against sparks. The city also poured roughly $30 million in local, state and federal money into projects to stem flooding from the burn scar.
As the five-year mark for the Waldo fire approaches, however, it appears the fire hasn't discouraged residents from living in areas that brush up against forests. In the burned area of Mountain Shadows, 92 percent of the destroyed homes, or 316, have been rebuilt or are or in the process of being rebuilt, the city says.
A commemorative picnic and concert will be held at the Mountain Shadows Community Park, at Flying W Ranch Road and Champagne Drive, from 6 to 8 p.m. on Monday, June 26.