The risk of wildfire is a fact of life in Boulder County. Prior to the Marshall Fire and fires in South Boulder, I’m sure many of us considered wildfire risk an issue for those living in the mountains, but not for those living in our cities and suburbs. Without a doubt, the Marshall Fire has changed all that.
The memory of acrid smoke filling the air still lingers with us from the fires during the summer of 2020. All you had to do was drive a short distance north from Boulder on Highway 36 to see charred trees and the remains of homes destroyed.
The fires in recent weeks burning large areas in New Mexico offer us yet another reminder to be prepared to evacuate no matter where you live. In the past, wildfires tended to be a summer threat. However, our winters have been no stranger to wildfire. When there is no snow on the ground and conditions are dry, the wildfire threat can be just as high in January as it is in August.
As a Realtor® , I have unfortunately had several clients and friends who have lost their home to wildfire over the years. Since fire is a threat to so many of us in Boulder County, we need to be ready if the time comes. Everyone needs to have a plan to bring what is important to them. You might only have a few minutes to make that decision, if at all. In many cases in the fast-moving Marshall fire, people were away from their homes and had no opportunity to go home and save their belongings.
There are a variety of resources to help you prepare for a wildfire emergency:
Check out National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) Firewise USA web page offering a wide range of helpful information at: nfpa.org/Public-Education/Fire-causes-and-risks/Wildfire/Firewise-USA.
The National Association of Realtors® (NAR) has also introduced a new wildfire risk tool at the individual property level, including insights into U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service wildfire risk assessments and a new Fire Factor™ feature. To learn more, visit: riskfactor.com.
If you live in Boulder County, you’ll also want to visit wildfirepartners.org. Wildfire Partners is a program with Boulder County’s Community Planning and Permits Department, which helps homeowners prepare for wildfire. Once you join the program and a mitigation specialist assesses your home, you must complete a suggested checklist of preventative measures to mitigate the risk of wildfires. Once that is completed, Wildfire Partners will issue you a certificate that can be used as proof of mitigation for insurance purposes.
Wildfire Partners, which has until recently primarily worked in western Boulder County, has now launched a new pilot program in eastern Boulder County on the plains. Interested residents are encouraged to apply through the program’s website. Applications are due June 30, 2022.
In addition, the Boulder Office of Emergency Management has a guide with checklists to help you prepare for a disaster at:
The following is a list of quick tips to have your bases covered in case of a wildfire emergency.
Most of us have to admit that we haven’t completely read our hazard insurance policies – and many homeowners are underinsured. According to Colorado Public Radio, around two-thirds of homes destroyed in the Marshall Fire were underinsured.
If you live in a fire hazard area, it is even more important to know exactly what to expect from your insurance coverage. You need to investigate what the insurance company will do towards the replacement of your home or other options. Just as important is what they will do to help while you’re rebuilding.
A written and photographic inventory of your personal property is critical to have. Be sure to save it off- site and also back it up online.
An annual review with your insurance agent is a must! Some insurance companies will schedule a time to inspect your home and its surroundings. Defensible space is one of the first things they will check.
Your insurance agent and the other resources listed above can help you work out your exact fire defense, safety, and recovery plan with plenty of detail. Here are three quick tips to get started on you plan:
1) Defensible space – First of all, remove fuel (anything that can burn!) from near your house. Learn about the three fire zones Firewise says are around your house. The Immediate Zone is the first five feet from the foundation. In that zone, you don’t want anything flammable. The Intermediate Zone is next, which is the section 5 to 30 feet from the home. This area should have fire breaks like lawns and driveways. Tree canopies should not come within 10 feet of the house and the trees should be at least 18 feet apart. The Extended Zone is next. Trees from 30 to 60 feet out from the house should have spacing at least 12 apart. Spaces between trees should be greater if they are on a steep slope.
2) Install a fire-retardant roof – Many of the older homes in the mountains west of Boulder were originally built with shake roofs. There should not be too many of those left now, but if you don’t have a fire-retardant roof, it should be a priority to get one installed as soon as possible.’
3) Be prepared to leave – The odds are high that when the notice to evacuate your home comes, there won’t be much time. Residents in high-risk areas should have a plan. That plan should include a list of what possessions to take on a priority basis. If you only have five minutes, you may only be able to take the items at the top of the list. Most people say that one of the things they would grab quickly are the family pictures. In our digital world, it is easy to upload sacred family pictures to the Cloud. Even old family photographs can be scanned and uploaded.
Important documents might not survive. You may want to keep paper documents in a storage container that’s easy to find quickly, or in a fire-proof safe – or even better, in an off-site safety deposit box. You can also store digital documents and important files on the cloud or on a secure online file hosting site like Dropbox.
In addition, any plan for a wildfire should include a primary escape route and a back-up escape route. If family members are at different locations at the time of the emergency, you should have an agreed upon meeting place.
The real estate market and wildfire
It’s important to be aware of the long-term implications on the real estate market when there is a fire. When smoke is in the air, it is difficult for homebuyers to think of purchasing a home in that area. Closings don’t happen because insurance quickly becomes unavailable. The real estate market comes to a rapid stop in an area directly affected by the fire. An area with masses of trees can take years to grow back again and the market may take a long time to recover. Yet areas where there have been grass fires can come back greener and prettier in just one growing season, and the next summer you may not be able to tell there was even a fire.
We learned from the Colorado Springs Waldo Canyon Fire, where an entire subdivision burned, that it took several years to finish the rebuilding process. This fire happened in 2012, prior to our supply chain issues, so we can expect that the Marshall Fire recovery process will likely take longer. In Boulder County, we have never experienced such a huge number of homes lost in a geographic area the size of the Marshall Fire – and it’s crucial that we take the opportunity to learn from it. We are seeing some homeowners who are victims of the Marshall Fire choosing not to rebuild, and their lots are coming
into the marketplace. Displaced homeowners put additional pressure on an already low-inventory stressed housing market. By the end of 2022, we will have more data on how the Marshall Fire affected the overall housing market.
If you would like additional help to be prepared in the event of a wildfire, you may want to order the book, “Surviving Wildfire” by Linda Masterson. It is local and relevant. Linda and her husband lost their home to a wildfire west of Fort Collins in 2011. Dave Zader, a fire manager, calls it “full of information that could save homes…and lives.”
By Duane Duggan. Duane has been a Realtor for RE/MAX of Boulder since 1982. Living the life of a Realtor and being immersed in real estate led to the inception of his book, Realtor for Life. For questions, e-mail DuaneDuggan@boulderco.com, call 303.441.5611 or visit BoulderPropertyNetwork.com.