Alan Ferguson and his neighbors would sometimes look at the land between his house and the Flatirons of Boulder and talk about what might happen.
The home he built in late 2018 in the high Spanish hills east of Boulder seemed safe enough for them to call it a forever home. But there were risks. Sometimes the wind was so strong it felt like it could crumble the house, and maybe a blizzard could trap them behind their limited access to the main road. Maybe even a black bear could spoil things a bit.
“Have we ever considered the danger of fire? said Ferguson. “Not really.”
And yet, on the morning of December 30, Ferguson looked out the window and saw a flame, a singular, furious explosion from hell. He told his wife, Deborah Cave, to run and leave everything, even the family photos, and a minute later they entered a roaring tunnel of fire, coming out the other side with a gym bag and two cars and the clothes they had on their unburned bodies.
“Replaying it in my mind,” Ferguson said in a phone interview, “it’s incredibly miraculous how little life was lost.”
Winter’s persistent hot, dry weather turned the grassy fields into a powder keg that became the Marshall Fire that day, the most destructive wildfire in Colorado’s history. In response, Boulder County recently expanded its building code restrictions. The restrictions, among other things, mean that builders must now use fire-resistant materials on features such as roofs and gutters in unincorporated areas. They affect everyone now, from homeowners in the mountains and forests in the west and the plains in the east.
These fire restrictions were commonplace for decades in the mountains, where thick forests could fuel large fires big enough to swallow anything in their path. But extending them to the plains is a stunning recognition that those same fire hazards now exist everywhere, said county building official Ron Flax. The event shocked homeowners, Flax and fire officials: Fires such as the Marshall Fire, which destroyed 1,084 homes, including 156 in unincorporated areas, simply didn’t exist outside the mountains. from northern Colorado. The fire also killed two people and injured more than half a dozen.
“We haven’t had anything of this level of catastrophic fire on the plains,” Flax said. “But to be frank, we live in a changing climate.”
Indeed, the fire broke out five days after Christmas, a time when, in the past, there would have been snow on the ground, and more snow would have preceded it. Instead, it wasn’t even close to a White Christmas: drought and unusually hot weather dried out the grasses. This became a huge problem once the fire broke out and those high winds hit the area: fields of crisp grass fueled the monstrous blaze the same way a handful of pine needles tossed under wood helps to light a campfire.
The term “firestorm” was eerily accurate, as these conditions created embers that flew in the wind and rained onto rooftops and into gutters, igniting more homes and making it even easier for the fire to spread. Then the houses themselves spread the rain of embers, creating a cycle of terror.
“It’s a scary thing for anyone who’s seen it,” Flax said.
Fire-resistant materials may not have prevented the blaze, Flax said, but a number of homes may not have ignited as quickly, if at all, giving crews the time to control the fire.
“I think (the new restrictions) would have reduced the scale of capacity,” he said.
bang for the money
Unincorporated areas are those parts of Boulder County that are outside of city and town limits such as Boulder, Longmont, or Erie.
Flax and his team tried to require ignition-resistant materials that would help prevent future Marshall fires without adding too much cost.
“There was a lot of concern from those who were rebuilding,” he said. “Budgets are tight and costs are high, but we have focused on high value for money. We have tried to choose materials that do not increase the cost very much but have a very high value (by mitigating the risk of fire). It was a clear goal. We have heard from the owners about this.
In fact, Flax is convinced that many of the costs are additional or even insignificant.
“The metal gutters are a bit more, but that’s okay,” he said. “Some materials have no cost change.”
Most of the construction market was already using roofing materials required by regulations anyway, Flax said.
There are perhaps a dozen in the county’s unincorporated area with serious plans for rebuilding so far, said Kim Sanchez, deputy planning director. The county has issued four building permits and eight other owners have applied. Beyond that, it’s hard to know exactly how many of those who lost their homes are planning to rebuild. Sanchez said she believed most of the homes were the owners’ primary residences, not vacation homes or cabins.
The county has assigned what it calls a County Staff Reconstruction Coordinator to each of the 157 homeowners who have lost a home. Many other owners use these coordinators even if they are not close to applying for a permit. Four owners have sold their land and five others have land for sale.
“That 12 doesn’t reflect how many conversations are happening,” she said. “A number of others are working with their coordinators on the plans.”
This is something the county was unable to do after the 2013 flood due to the scale of the event, but the fire allowed them to deploy a staff member, helping to streamline the process, she said.
“If you’re rebuilding the same thing, you can go ahead with a permit and we give certain allowances for them to rebuild differently,” Sanchez said, “if it’s not wildly different.”
One more thing to do
Most owners didn’t cite the new requirements as too expensive or onerous, Sanchez said. Again, they may not notice: Building a house is already a difficult and expensive project. These rebuilds face the same issues faced by many other homebuilders, including supply chain issues, labor shortages and high prices, and more than a few didn’t have enough insurance, Sanchez said.
Pam and Dan Decker have a permit and are rebuilding after also losing their house. Pam said the biggest sore point was insurance, both for requiring an inventory of everything they owned and for not covering everything they thought had been insured.
“They want me to go get my antiques appraised,” Pam said. “They are in ashes.”
The new requirements are understandable, Pam said, but considering all the other things they have to do, it’s just one more thing that adds to the hassle.
“We fully understand why they need to be done,” she said. “But you still have to do it.”
Supplies and contractors are so limited that the Deckers had to order all of their fixtures, such as appliances, cabinets and rock for the fireplace, in February. The bylaw required them to decide on things like concrete patios instead of wood decking and concrete siding, and concrete is expensive, Pam said. She was also surprised by the permit fees: it cost them $26,000.
“I thought they put the comma in the wrong place,” she said.
Sanchez said the new regulations are part of the county’s desire to have homeowners “build back more resiliently.”
“It won’t prevent more fires from happening,” she said, “but it will make things safer.”
When he bought his homeowners insurance, Ferguson wondered if he was overinsuring his home, but now he’s thankful for it. He agrees that the construction process has been tedious and long, even though the county is doing its best, and he’s also not sure that the new regulations will benefit everyone, even if they haven’t caused him much of problems. He also said the county’s response, along with that of state officials and the many volunteers and neighbors who helped, was incredible.
He is grateful for his health. But he’s sad about the fire that took away almost everything else.
“My brother might be able to help me with this, but I still don’t have a single photo of my parents,” Ferguson said. “They say it’s just stuff, and it’s true, but not a day goes by that I don’t think of something and be like, ‘Boy, I miss it’.”