Wildfire FAQs 2022

Wildfire FAQs 2022

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. You can view it here. And we’ve provided information and encouragement to homeowners around ways to mitigate risk on their own properties and thus keep us all safer.

Since the Marshall and NCAR fires, we’ve all been wondering if our current mitigation practices are still adequate. We’ve reached out to Boulder Fire-Rescue’s Wildland Division to ask for any updates post Marshall and NCAR (you can find Chief Oliver’s analysis of the Marshall Fire here). They have told us that there are no changes to the protocols they’ve provided in the past.

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 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. BFRD may not have changed their aspirational protocols following the Marshall Fire, but we may need to revisit our own application of them following that event.

Consequently, we are setting up a meeting here at SR4 to include a BFRD representative, all interested homeowners, and representatives of neighboring HOAs to discuss wildfire mitigation in 2022. You’ll receive notice of the time and place for that meeting. We will be using the information that comes out of this meeting to create an updated 2022 version of the SR4 Fire Mitigation Plan.

At the moment, here’s what we know about questions that are at the top of many people’s minds:

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 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.

What about all the tall, wild grass in our common areas? Doesn’t that put us at great risk?

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 it have figured prominently in our overall fire mitigation plan from the beginning. As evidenced in the horrifying and tragic Marshall Fire, wild grasses were ignited and extremely high winds propelled a vicious fire front for miles, leaving gross devastation in its wake. The grasses were like a giant, fast-burning fuse, but it’s important to consider the question: “What was the bomb?”.

As BFRD Wildland Fire Chief Oliver says, “Grass is the primary carrier of the fire, that is not in question.” But for a grass fire to destroy homes, flames from it need to contact larger, ladder fuels, which burn hotter and longer and can ignite a home. Grasses all by themselves have comparatively little embodied fuel energy and are quite unlikely to do that. Oliver goes on to say, “I believe the home ignition early in the Marshall incident was combustible fuel around homes and ornamental trees and shrubs. Yes, the grass delivered the fire to those things, but rarely does grass by itself carry enough heat energy to ignite a home.” While we await a final report on the Marshall Fire, it currently appears that an extreme wildland grassfire ignited larger fuels, which in turn ignited buildings, and those in turn shed large, high-energy embers that high winds conveyed to more large fuels and structures downwind. It is unfortunately not difficult to imagine that scenario playing out in SR4.

So we need to consider the whole equation. Building upon the focused fire mitigation work already undertaken relative to our wild grasses, in conjunction with our 2022 removal of major fuel sources (i.e., junipers), we’re in the process of investigating what our next, best steps might be for the safety of SR4, including possible additional fire mitigation in our wild grassy areas.

So what are we doing now to keep the grasses from igniting bigger things in a wind-driven fire?

BFRD gave us a formula to use when creating fuel separation: Flame length = 4 x fuel height in an average wind event. Using this rubric, we have limbed up all the Ponderosas in our grassy open space, removed even more-flammable items like junipers and pinions, and every year when the grasses start to dry out, we weed whack them down an appropriate distance from any potential ladder fuels on private property that abut the fields. We also remove dropped needles from beneath our limbed-up trees.

Note that the formula applies to an average wind event, and we’re not sure what “average” looks like anymore. This is one reason why we’re in discussion with BFRD and setting up a new meeting opportunity. We all have questions. We have already adjusted our weed-whacking protocol to include another pass once grasses have been broken down by winter wind and snow, in case the position of the fuels has changed. And we may need to adjust our practices further given our new understanding of the year-round fire possibilities in our neighborhood.

Why don’t we just mow all the fields every year?

In the past, there have been a few reasons.

First, for decades our membership has expressed their desire to maintain a natural-environment esthetic in our neighborhood. We have a native short-grass prairie remnant here that people have felt is worth preserving and protecting, for a variety of environmental and quality-of-life reasons. This was reaffirmed at the 2019 special meeting at which our plan was laid out and adopted.

Second, we have a lot of it. We have about a mile of fence perimeter alone and some very large interior areas, totaling about 6.5 acres. If our membership decides they want to trim significantly more of our grasses, there would be costs associated with that, and this larger annual grass mitigation would necessarily bump up our annual budget. Once they’ve had a chance to ask questions and analyze the risks for themselves, Silver Plume residents may or may not decide the cost is worth it.

Third, it remains to be seen how much more extensive grass trimming is necessary. We have long offered homeowners the option of weed-whacking their own 5-foot-wide, 8-inch-tall fire break behind their own homes if they desire, and even if they don’t, the HOA is already proactively creating space between specific ladder fuels and these grasses. We have already modified how we go about that and are looking hard to see if there’s more mitigation we should be doing to better protect our homes. This will be a main topic of discussion at our upcoming meeting.

That said, to protect our homes, the best thing we can do is to mitigate our larger fuels and ladder pathways, both on HOA and private property.

What about the split-rail fences? Don’t they add additional risk?

Surprisingly, 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, they 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. 

While split-rail fence is hard to fully ignite in a grass fire, it can still 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 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, the larger fuels in our neighborhood. The especially flammable items like junipers, pinions, 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.

Second, lack of home hardening. If there’s an ember storm coming from our west, consisting of flaming chunks of larger fuels and even 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.

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.

You can also find great information in the City of Boulder Fire-Rescue’s Wildland Fire Preparedness Guide. Think firewood piles, junipers, pinions, other evergreens, leaves under decks, litter in gutters, mulch, and patio furniture.

Please check the SR4 website (www.shanahanridge4.org)  under the heading 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.