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Learning from a Colorado wildfire.

Learning from a Colorado wildfire On July 9, 1988, the most destructive fire in Colorado's history razed 44 houses near Boulder. In four days, the Black Tiger fire scorched 2,100 acres, causing $10 million of destruction. But even as firefighters battled the blaze, federal, statem and county officials organized resource teams to spearhead recovery plans.

One immediate concern was erosion, and by winter, control measures were under way. Meanwhile, fire officials studied the devastation to learn how homeowners can protect their houses in the future

Although fire patterns vary according to vegetation, climate, and topography, the lessons from the Boulder fire--and the example set by the concerted recovery efforts--are instructive to homeowners wherever wildfire is a threat.

Protecting hillsides from erosion

Throughout the fall and winter, officials pursued funding, then implemented a four-stage plan for controlling erosion:

In February, a helicopter seeded the watershed with four varieties of grass.

February through March, dead trees were felled and laid across upper slopes at 50-foot intervals to slow runoff. Junior rangers jammed rocks and limbs against the logs.

In April, foresters supervised construction of 15 sediment fences above the creek. The bottoms of the polypropylene barriers were buried 6 inches to trap soil.

In May, volunteers spent two days planting 9,000 pine, fir, and juniper seedlings.

Evaluating the results, state forester Craig Jones said, "For the money spent, we probably got the most benefit out of the tree felling."

Learning from the destruction

A study based on 28 houses in a 500-acre area netted valuable conclusions about why one house burns while its neighbor survives.

In every case but one, damaged houses were 20 feet or less from wildland fuels (brush, dry grasses, overhanging limbs), prompting one official's remark that the most important thing a wildland homeowner can do is to clear a defensible zone of at least 30 feet around the house.

Good access proved significant. Dead-end, one-lane access roads longer than 200 feet made firetighters think twice before venturing in to protect a house.

Exterior construction also affected the odds. Houses with combustible roofing or siding, and ones having unenclosed eaves or decks with open framework, were most vulnerable.

While a severe fire can overpower the best-protected house, the Boulder study illustrates the value of taking precautions. The owners of one house had cleared a 75-foot break in front of the approaching fire and wetted his asphalt roof before fleeing. Although radiant heat caused heavy damage, the house survived.

The results of the study are available free. Write to Black Tiger Fire, National Fire Protection Association, 1 Batterymarch Park, Quincy, Mass. 00269.
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Title Annotation:Environmental Action
Date:Jun 1, 1991
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