Playing defense 

Encompassing study of wildland interface puts Waldo Canyon Fire under the microscope

click to enlarge Study: Only 48 homes ignited from the fire itself. - PHOTO BY CSFD, COURTESY NIST
  • Photo by CSFD, Courtesy NIST
  • Study: Only 48 homes ignited from the fire itself.

Of the 344 homes burned in the Waldo Canyon Fire in 2012, only 48 caught fire directly from the wildfire itself, with the 296 others igniting from "cascading" sparks, according to "A Case Study of a Community Affected by the Waldo Fire," the long-awaited study of the fire by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

The 227-page study ("Waldo Canyon Fire spreads in the scientific community," March 6, 2013) is being called the most comprehensive examination in history of a WUI fire. It was unveiled Monday at the Fire Chiefs White House Roundtable on Climate Change Impacts at the Wildland Urban Interface.

The Waldo fire was the state's most destructive at that time, but was upstaged by the Black Forest Fire in 2013, which burned about 500 homes.

"We provide strong evidence that defensive measures designed specifically for the wildland urban interface and administered early can significantly reduce destruction and damage," NIST fire researcher and principal investigator Alexander Maranghides says in a news release.

NIST notes the number of WUI fires has ballooned as houses push into wilderness areas. From 2001 to 2012, the annual average was 71,000 WUI fires, which burned 4.7 million acres, according to the Bureau of Land Management's National Interagency Fire Center. Today, NIST reports, a third of housing units in the United States are situated within 220 million acres of WUI.

This means 72,000 communities with more than 120 million people are at risk.

NIST scientists credited firefighters with "prompt and effective action" in the Waldo fire, concluding that 75 percent of their efforts to extinguish blazes and 79 percent of their containment efforts succeeded.

"First responders were able to contain fire spread or 'box in' much of the fire because they effectively assessed fire behavior, exposure risks to structures from fire and embers, and potential responses by structures to the changing conditions," the NIST release says.

But Colorado Springs firefighters were ill prepared for the fire's invasion of Mountain Shadows subdivision, as documented in the Independent's analysis of the response ("Misfire," Dec. 12, 2012).

The day the fire blew into the city, there were a mere four firefighting vehicles, or apparatus, assigned to Mountain Shadows and all other land north to the Air Force Academy, for example. Communications broke down, and staging for the sudden deployment of 150 firefighters was described by one firefighter as consisting of "a [sic] pens and pads of paper."

Nevertheless, Springs firefighters leapt into action and "boxed" the fire to prevent it from spreading farther. ("Men in the 'box,' Dec. 12, 2012.) The fire killed two people.

After the fire, the city changed building codes to require attic screens and more fire-resistant materials in homes built in the wildland interface. The city also works with neighborhoods to mitigate within the city's 28,800 acres of WUI and has conducted evaluations on roughly 36,485 homes, according to the Springs Fire Department website.

The study makes a series of recommendations, including that fire departments map Wildland Urban Interface areas and develop procedures for battling WUI fires, as well as have "optimal time-to-response standards" for WUI fires just as they do for urban fires.


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