by Nate Goeckner, CCCFPD Community Outreach Team
Since 2001, Colorado has experienced the top 20 largest wildfires in Colorado state history. The top five most destructive wildfires in Colorado have occurred since 2012, and the Marshall fire in December 2021 demonstrated that the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) is growing and reaching communities that historically were not considered at risk of loss to wildfires. Wildfires in Colorado are no longer a conversation of if but when a wildfire can occur. In today’s news coverage of wildfire and risk, it might seem like doom and gloom or an impossible situation. However, we are lucky to have a variety of actions we can take to mitigate risk and increase the resiliency of our communities, neighborhoods, and properties. Now more than ever, there is access to research, techniques, and new information on how to better prepare for wildfires and mitigate the risks of living in fire-prone dry forests and grasslands. There is no single fix to mitigate fire risk. Wildfire mitigation requires entire communities using several different techniques and best practices, such as retrofitting siding and roofing, hardening homes, cutting and trimming trees to create defensible space, and replacing flammable plants and landscaping related structures, such as decks and fences, with less flammable alternatives.
Updated CSU Extension Low Flammability Landscape Plants Factsheet
The newly updated Low Flammability Landscape Plants – 6.305 Factsheet is an update from an original CSU Extension factsheet, “FireWise Plant Materials.” The newly updated factsheet was a collaborative effort between Colorado State University Extension and the Colorado State Forest Service. This factsheet covers landscaping plants that could be planted within Home Ignition Zone defensible space zones 2 (5-30 feet) and 3 (30-100 feet). The updated plant list was created from methodology used by Idaho Firewise Inc. to rate the flammable qualities of plants. This was achieved by looking at specific plant characteristics such as oil or resin content, moisture content, soap/latex content, growth form, woodiness, and tolerance to drought. Then plants were selected that would do well in a variety of different elevations and climates in Colorado. These plants are organized in groups according to their status as native vs. non-native plants, low water needs, and higher water needs. This factsheet is a great tool for deciding what to plant next to houses and structures, with the key objective of limiting the amount of flammable plant material. While no plant is “fireproof,” certain plants can behave with less volatility compared to more highly flammable plants like juniper that are commonly planted or found near houses and structures. You can find the factsheet in the Resources section of the CWPP Community Outreach Team website at www.CoalCreekCWPP.org.
Analysis and studies of structure and home loss in wildfires have concluded that most homes are lost due to ember showers and embers entering a structure. Embers will land in defensible space zones 1, 2, and 3 where landscaping plants are found, and the flammability of those plants will impact structure loss. Ongoing research has provided the wildfire prevention industry and WUI communities with updated knowledge. One of the best things communities and landowners can do is invest in making their homes more hardened to embers and creating defensible space with proper mitigation techniques, removing ladder fuels, and removing plants with high flammability.
Colorado has many ecosystems that rely on fire, and historically, fire played a significant role as a mechanism for disturbance or resetting a new cycle of plant growth. As Colorado community members living in the WUI, and living with fire, we can have an impact that affects not only our properties but the lives and properties of our neighbors, our firefighters, and the future of the mountain ecosystems we all love.
Nate Goeckner – CSU Extension Jefferson County – Natural Resource Specialist