At SR4 we’ve spent the last four years working to learn from professionals about fire behavior and best mitigation practices to keep our neighborhood safe. Using that knowledge, we developed and put in place a comprehensive fire mitigation plan for our common areas that was approved by the membership at a 2019 special meeting that included several members of Boulder Fire-Rescue’s Wildland Division. We’ve also provided information and encouragement to homeowners about ways to mitigate risk on their own properties and thus keep us all safer.
Following the Marshall and NCAR fires, we reached out to Boulder Fire-Rescue’s Wildland Division for any updated information. Chief Brian Oliver was kind enough to provide us with his analysis of the Marshall Fire, which you can read here.
On May 11, 2022, the board and all interested HOA members had an in-person meeting with Chief Oliver to talk through what changes might be needed to our wildfire mitigation plan in light of the Marshall and NCAR fires. We wanted to know if conditions have changed in the last four years and/or if our understanding of wildfire risk and behavior should be modified. We learned a great deal at that meeting. You can read the summary or the full minutes here.
It’s important to note that the fire mitigation protocols fire professionals provide and support are not always possible to implement in all situations, particularly in neighborhoods with houses sited as close together as ours. To create a 30-foot zone of mitigation around your Silver Plume home would likely involve your neighbor’s home and landscaping. We are not a mountain or rural community.
So our original plan, of necessity, used the essential concepts and rules of thumb provided to us by BFRD and others, but it was customized to accommodate both the distances in our neighborhood and the stated preferences of our residents.
Our updated plan, which you can read here, continues the application of those essential concepts, but takes into account new understanding of the year-round nature of our fire risk, the different fuels available at different times of the year, and the changing nature of our members’ risk tolerance, among other things.
Following are answers to some wildfire-related questions that come up most often around the neighborhood:
I see smoke from a nearby fire; what should I do?
First, if the fire is quite new, call 911 to be sure officials are aware of it. If the fire has already been called in, the 911 operator will quickly let you know.
Check in with your neighbors to make sure they’re aware of the situation. You can see more information about this on our website (www.shanahanridge4.org). Please familiarize yourself with this before you see smoke!
Next, collect the valuable items you’ve hopefully already identified for evacuation and get ready to go on a moment’s notice. For more information about evacuation preparation, see the Ready, Set, Go! advice at the end of the City of Boulder Fire-Rescue’s Wildland Fire Preparedness Guide.
Keep monitoring the fire – a great way to do that is on www.boulderoem.com – and if you receive an evacuation notice, leave promptly. Even if you don’t receive a notice, consider leaving anyway, to get out ahead of traffic jams. And of course, if you feel unsafe, don’t wait for an evacuation notice, just go!
What about all the tall, wild grass in our common areas? Doesn’t that put us at great risk?
Chief Oliver has told us that dry grass is a light, flashy, easily ignited fuel, but that it has relatively little embodied heat energy and retains heat for a very short time. He said that embers from grass are out and cold within a few feet. The danger from grass is if, while burning, it can come in contact with another, easily ignitable fuel like mulch or a juniper, which can in turn ignite other things, such as fences and houses. He told us that no homes were lost in the Marshall Fire as a result of direct exposure to burning grass, and that the fire ceased to be a grass fire within 90 minutes.
That said, there is no question that our common area grasslands are a critical factor in our neighborhood’s overall wildfire risk equation, and mitigation efforts related to them have figured prominently in our holistic fire mitigation plan from the beginning. As of 2022, we will do even more grass mitigation. Having learned this spring that dry, dormant, deciduous materials were significant ember-throwers in the Marshall Fire, and that we need to keep fuels cleared out around our split rail fences, we will be lowering the height of the grasses to 8 inches in a 10-foot-wide swath around the entire SR4 fence line, including the Longwood fence line, as well as under trees in our open spaces beyond the 10-foot perimeter.
Why 8 inches? We’ve been told by Open Space and Mountain Parks plant biologists that that is the minimum height to ensure the continued health of our wild grasses. Trimmed any shorter than that, the grasses are too weak to compete successfully against weeds, and our fields will be filled with them. We’ve observed this ourselves in areas where wild grass is cut too short. Consequently, it’s important that homeowners not lower the grasses further by mowing or additional string trimming behind their own homes.
With the additional wild grass mitigation, should fire enter our grassy areas from any source, it will have less fuel to burn overall, and the reduced height of the grasses near the split-rail fence will result in lower flame length near homes and landscaping. BFRD has told us this will make the fire in that area less intense and give them a better opportunity to protect our homes. It will also make our dry split-rail fencing somewhat less likely to ignite (for the risk there, see below).
Keep in mind, however, that wind-driven flame from 8-inch-tall dry grass can still ignite close-by ladder fuels, so it’s of utmost importance that homeowners assess the landscaping and other items in their own yards for too-close proximity to the dry field grasses, regardless of their height.
What about the split-rail fences? Don’t they add additional risk?
In the past, we’ve been told they do not. It was explained to us this way: Fire in grass burns out quickly and at a relatively low temperature. While fence components can be burned if in contact with burning grasses, the heat is not sustained long enough for the posts and rails to become fully involved. In addition, the components are spaced far enough apart that it is difficult to ignite and sustain combustion in the whole unit. Imagine trying to build a campfire with two widely spaced logs and a handful of dry grass.
This is still true; however, because our fencing is quite dry, and because our rails are split and not round and pressure-treated, we’ve been told they have slightly more potential to burn. Chief Oliver told us recently that if the fencing is not connected to a house, and if the fuels around them are kept cleared out, our split-rail fences do not pose a substantial risk.
However, while a split-rail fence is hard to fully ignite in a grass fire, it can still burn and smolder, and if it’s connected to a home or is in contact with other ladder fuels, that could become a problem. The key to mitigation remains creating separation between fences and ladder fuels and fences and homes.
Solid/privacy fences are a greater concern, especially if they’re attached to your home or are near other ladder fuels. These can and do ignite and can form a dangerous fuse fuel.
If grasses and split-rail fences aren’t the primary risk to our homes, what is?
First, lack of home hardening. If there’s an ember storm approaching our neighborhood, consisting of flaming chunks of larger fuels and even other homes, these can directly ignite a home that has ways for the fire to get in. Boulder Fire-Rescue will do a free assessment of your home, identifying risks and suggesting modifications that can make your home less likely to ignite from embers.
Second, the larger fuels in our neighborhood. The especially flammable items like junipers, pinyons, and other evergreens that grow near our homes can burn hot enough and long enough to ignite a home. These throw large embers far downwind and can ignite other fuels or insufficiently fire-hardened homes. It’s vital to remember that easily ignitable materials on your own property are not just a risk to your home; they’re a risk to the whole neighborhood.
What can I do on my own property to stay safe?
First, contact Boulder Fire-Rescue for a free home assessment. They will point out what is and isn’t risky and suggest ways to reduce that risk.
Next, start from inside your home and work out. Have a Go Bag packed, have valuables identified for evacuation, know where you’ll go, know how you’ll communicate with your family, and check your insurance policies.
Once that’s done, start exterior mitigation of your home. Make sure embers have no way in, no flammable fences are attached to it, and make sure there’s nothing flammable within 3-5 feet of your house.
Next, check your landscaping and other features on your property to determine how close they are to your home or your neighbors’ homes and how easily they might set a home on fire, either directly or through wind-driven embers, should any of them ignite. Be very aware of ladder fuels – those things that could set other things afire. You can find great information on that in the City of Boulder Fire-Rescue’s Wildland Fire Preparedness Guide. Think mulch, firewood piles, junipers, pinyons, other evergreens, leaves under decks, litter in gutters, and patio furniture.
Also, keep in mind our new understanding that fire season is year-round and that dry, dormant, deciduous materials can burn and be large ember generators in the winter months.
Do your spring and fall cleanup chores. Clean your gutters, mow your lawn, and remove dry leaves and debris from around your home and underneath decks to deprive a wildfire of fuel.
Finally, talk to your neighbors. Keep in mind that in a neighborhood as closely sited as ours, wildfire risk mitigation must be undertaken by everyone to be successful. And check this SR4 website under Wildfire Preparedness for much more.
What are other Shanahan Ridge neighborhoods doing to mitigate fire risk?
Shanahan Ridge 5 (to our south) is surrounded by irrigated turf, but they still have some fire-risky ladder fuels near buildings on their property. Four years ago, they had a risk assessment done by BFRD, which we attended. To the best of our knowledge, they trimmed some of their trees following that meeting. They were reassured by BFRD that the wild grasses on our property and on a small adjoining part of their own were not a threat to their turf-protected homes.
Shanahan Ridge 6 (Galena, Hardscrabble, and Tincup Court) has removed their parking island junipers, limbed up evergreen trees, added rock mulch to their parking islands, created fire breaks around the perimeters of their grassy outlots, and this year will begin lowering the height of dry grasses in the interiors of these outlots. Their homeowners have also done quite a bit of mitigation work on their own properties.
Shanahan Ridge 7 (to our immediate west) will this year begin removing the large junipers growing close to their 20 buildings. At present, their available funds are devoted to that effort and they have no plans to mitigate the wild grasses on their property. These grasses are separated from their buildings by sidewalk and irrigated turf, but they do abut SR4 and Longwood property and remain an item of concern. We will continue to discuss this with them.