For most locals, the words "Waldo Canyon" trigger a mental slide show.
Cars backed up as towering flames chase them from Mountain Shadows. Mobs of people, sticky from the heat, standing outside Red Cross shelters. Trees exploding on hillsides.
But wipe those images from your brain for a moment. Because if we, as a community, want to move forward from our fiery recent past, we shouldn't be thinking of Black Forest or Mountain Shadows. We should be thinking of Cedar Heights.
Long before the fire razed Mountain Shadows, it knocked on Cedar Heights' door. And knocked. And knocked. But it never got in.
Luck played a part in saving that west side neighborhood, but only a part. As explained in "Lessons Learned from Waldo Canyon," a report from the national public-private collaborative Fire Adapted Communities, Cedar Heights was saved by a lot of firefighters, some cooperative weather, a community of vigilant homeowners, and by a place called Solitude Park.
Tale of two targets
For years, using private, city and Federal Emergency Management Agency grant funds, the city mitigated the 300-acre park that lies just above Cedar Heights, removing excess vegetation. Two years later, that allowed firefighters to "anchor" in a safe zone and create a dozer line instrumental in saving the neighborhood.
"The Mitigation Assessment Team found the most significant fuel treatment 'story' [of the Waldo fire] played out at Solitude Park on June 24," the report notes.
It also helped that many Cedar Heights homes met modern guidelines for fire safety, a credit to a community that's on the national register of "Firewise Communities." (While there has yet to be a comprehensive study of mitigation's effects on the Black Forest Fire, it's worth noting that the heavily mitigated Cathedral Pines area survived the blaze.)
So how did Mountain Shadows compare to Cedar Heights in terms of mitigation? It really didn't. Though the Lessons Learned report notes that the city has long had a robust program to help people mitigate their homes, Fire Marshal Brett Lacey says only 46 homes in Mountain Shadows had recently taken the city up on its offer before the Waldo fire. Of those, 13 burned — not great, but still a victory considering how tightly packed homes were in the burn area.
"There was one on, I think, Darien Way," Lacey says of a home located adjacent to one of the heaviest-burned areas. "... That house was what we kind of call our 'textbook house' ... the owners at the time did a tremendous job of wildfire mitigation such that they probably saved three adjoining properties."
In fact, today the Gambel oak near that home, trimmed so the branches are well above the ground, is blackened along the bottom of the trunks. But its branches are still green.
One at a time?
If mitigation of a single property can make a difference, mitigation of entire communities makes a much bigger one. That's especially true in a crowded neighborhood in the wildland-urban interface, where low-hanging branches on an untrimmed tree, for instance, can help a fire climb from ground to rooftop.
Which brings up the ultimate question in all this: Should people be required to mitigate properties that abut the wilderness, given that their carelessness can so profoundly impact their neighbors?
Lacey believes the answer is no.
"Personally, I think this is an adult behavior question," he says. "... I don't know that I feel strongly about having to come in and beat people's knuckles to get them to comply."
In fact, the city has no rules for mitigation, other than some recently added fire-safe requirements for new construction. (The county will, apparently, consider adding such requirements for new buildings, though El Paso County Commissioner Amy Lathen has predicted they would "sterilize the whole place.")
Lacey believes education, peer pressure, incentives and even fear motivate people to mitigate. Once they're interested, city homeowners can view a map at springsgov.com, showing how fire-safe the city believes their property, and how neighbors' properties rate.
Homeowners can then schedule an appointment with the Colorado Springs Fire Department. Experts will come to the property and advise what needs to be done, including what trees must go and which must stay to combat other environmental issues like erosion.
If the neighborhood does the mitigation as a group, the city will send over a chipper free of charge to break down the yard waste and either haul it off or gift it to the property owners.
Lacey's department has long encouraged homeowners to take advantage of the program through an education campaign that includes everything from online video to community meetings. Calls really started coming in after Waldo, but Lacey notes, "There's still tons of people that say, 'Well, a fire that big, there's nothing that's going to stop that and it doesn't matter what we do.'
"That's just not true."
Everyone on board
Lacey's team mostly helps individuals and small groups. But some organized neighborhoods have chosen to go the extra mile, getting most homeowners to do mitigation and earning the national "Firewise" designation, just as Cedar Heights did.
Now, experts — both private and public — are developing a program for whole communities that want to protect themselves. It's called Fire Adapted Communities and it's being piloted in eight U.S. cities, including Woodland Park.
Jonathan Bruno, operations director for the Coalition for the Upper South Platte, is leading the Woodland Park effort, and says the group is still trying to define the "fire adapted" designation. But his target is to make Woodland Park and its surrounding forest — 63,000 acres in all — as safe from fire as possible. That will include running small and large projects and education campaigns, creating special "safety zones" (fuel-free areas where firefighters can stage), beefing up ordinances and codes, creating "fuel buffers" around the city, and ensuring there's enough supplies and people to fight a fire if it comes.
"We need to be thinking not at the five-acre level, but at the 50,000-acre level," he says.
The problem, he adds, is that not everyone wants to get on board.
Some governments have solved that dilemma. In California, a state whose destructive wildfires are the stuff of legend, many counties have made mitigation the law.
Pikes Peak area native Bruce Arvizu served for decades with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, where he earned the rank of fire battalion chief before retiring a year and a half ago. He says rules vary county to county in California, but generally government workers stop by properties annually, decide what needs to be cleaned up, and leave a notice for the homeowner. If the property isn't cleared within a certain period of time, a government worker or contractor does the work, and a tax lien is put on the property to cover the expense. Letting the government do the work is usually more expensive.
The practice might seem heavy-handed, especially given that not everyone has the money to do work that can cost thousands, nor does everyone have the ability to do it themselves. But Arvizu says it's common to see neighbors helping the elderly, and he points out that mitigation work is usually light when it's done annually.
"There's ways to be creative with this with the older folks," he says. "The other side of this is, if they don't do this they're at risk and [someone] lives in the property next door."