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Tightly Built Homes Helped Firestorm Marshall Spread to Colorado Suburbs, Insurance Researchers Say

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Tightly Built Homes Helped Firestorm Marshall Spread to Colorado Suburbs, Insurance Researchers Say

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UPPER — Too many homes built too close together on the dry high plains between Denver and Boulder led to record $1 billion in losses in Firestorm Marshall, insurance industry researchers found this week as they sifted through the ashes and charred ruins.

They were beginning an investigation, similar to work done after previous devastating fires, including the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire west of Colorado Springs and the 2018 fire that destroyed nearly 19,000 structures in Paradise, California. . Their industry, the Insurance Institute for Building and Home Safety, is developing a science of how fires burn in communities and what can survive as global warming intensifies.

“Spacing here was a problem,” research engineer Faraz Hedayati said as he probed gaps less than 10 feet wide between older homes where radiant heat helped flames spread.

Another issue was proximity to native vegetation – grasslands where record temperatures and drought had created conditions where, with human ignition and high winds, the firestorm spread rapidly from Marshall to Superior and Louisville, built in the suburbs, said research engineer Dan Gorham.

“It’s an evolved ecosystem to have fire. We have to learn to live with that,” Gorham said, pointing to the grasslands between Superior and Boulder. “We have to build understanding that this is an ecosystem that needs fire.”

Devastated homeowners stood in the ashes and ruins, masked to reduce their inhalation of toxic metal fumes from burnt-out appliances, as the industry team walked through this Sycamore development where construction took off in the 1990s They shared stories of what happened on December 30 and embraced the idea of ​​building resilience for the future.

“I really want to build back better. I want to know the right way,” said Jonathan Vigh, 44, an atmospheric scientist who fled with his wife and two children as reddish smoke from the immediately adjacent prairies drifted towards their home. A few asphalt shingles from their roof survived, and a pear tree planted in 2015 survived, but a cedar fence apparently worked like a fuse and the destruction was total.

A nearby house was less than 10 feet away. And Vigh was conducting his own investigation, wearing a respirator and a white plastic jumpsuit, looking for a computer hard drive containing family photos. He found it in the basement foundations, leaning over it, only to see that it had burned too much and those footage had been lost.

Andy Cross, The Denver Post

Homeowner Jonathan Vigh adjusts a respirator outside his burned home on January 13, 2022. Vigh’s home and all of his neighbors’ homes were lost in the Marshall Fire two weeks earlier. Vigh, project scientist at NCAR, National Center for Atmospheric Research, has agreed to work with researchers from the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety to help gain a better perspective on how to make homes and neighborhoods more resilient. on fire in the future.

He now wonders if the owner of this adjacent house would be willing to sell so that more spacing is possible for his family in the future. “If he chooses not to rebuild, I would consider buying his property,” Vigh said.

A new Colorado push for “hardening off,” now in suburban as well as mountain forest developments, is gaining momentum in the wake of this costliest climate-induced hell in state history. The Marshall Firestorm destroyed 1,084 structures and damaged at least 149 others, including a Super Target store where wind-blown embers found organic material on the roof.

“This could be a model of rebuilding for us to achieve a fire-safe community,” said Carole Walker, director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association and member of the Colorado Fire Commission appointed by Gov. Jared Polis to fight forest fires. risks.

“We are going to start from scratch.”

The question is what hardening would entail. A fire safety push for low-density housing would be met with a push by some planners and developers towards higher-density “mixed-use” communities. Population growth in Colorado and other parts of the Arid West has led some planners to encourage housing “units” grouped closely together like integrated circuits and surrounded by native vegetation that requires less water than lawns and parks.

Tighter spacing and vegetation management for fire protection could conflict with water conservation and other long-term goals, said Molly Mowery, director of the Community Wildfire Planning Center, an organization nonprofit that guides city officials.

Examining limits to growth opens “a huge Pandora’s box”, Mowery said, anticipating that building fire resistance will require balancing global warming preparedness measures. “There will be no solution that satisfies everything.”

Tightly Built Homes Helped Firestorm Marshall Spread to Colorado Suburbs, Insurance Researchers Say

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RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

The Marshall Fire continues to burn out of control in a neighborhood on December 30, 2021.

Insurance industry researchers determined that Firestorm Marshall, as it spread from the prairies to homes, accelerated because the flames found abundant fuel and radiant heat ignited tight structures, adding wind-whipped embers to the ignitions.

“The conflagration happens when you get that close,” Roy Wright, chief executive of the insurance institute, said Thursday as his team began their investigation.

Spacing less than 12 feet favors fire, the researchers established, and gaps between houses of 50 feet or more are advised, Wright said. “Scattering is a way to eliminate the domino effect” and with greater spacing “you wouldn’t have lost so many structures”.

Redoing Colorado’s suburbs to endure worsening fires will also require clearing pads at least five feet wide and “impeccably” bare, Wright said, as well as screens over vents and retrofitting with a roof, non-flammable coating and vegetation. Well-watered green lawns are less likely to burn than native grasses, he said.

And the mulch that residents are increasingly using to help plants withstand rising temperatures “is like spreading matches around your house.”

Insurance industry officials have also recommended rethinking the “Wildland Urban Interface” concept that Colorado officials have used to map urban development as it increases in forests to prioritize protection against fires.

“We have to start imagining what we see here as likely…” Wright said. “We have too narrow a view of where the wildlife risk is.”

Tightly Built Homes Helped Firestorm Marshall Spread to Colorado Suburbs, Insurance Researchers Say

 | Local News

Andy Cross, The Denver Post

Daniel Gorham, a research engineer with the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, measures the distance between two foundations of two homes in Superior on January 13, 2022. All homes in this neighborhood were destroyed in the Marshall Fire two weeks earlier.

Tightly Built Homes Helped Firestorm Marshall Spread to Colorado Suburbs, Insurance Researchers Say

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