When the Waldo Canyon fire raced down the ridgeline and into the Mountain Shadows neighborhood, homes were destroyed no matter what building materials were used.
Houses with stucco siding, houses with redwood decks, cedar fencing, uneven irrigation and too many trees too close to the house — all went up in flames. In many cases, an entire street burned because a fire in one house ignited neighboring homes.
Fire destroyed 345 homes and damaged 47. In the aftermath, the city hopes to correct the combined problems that led to the Mountain Shadows conflagration.
Fire Marshall Brett Lacey this week presented the new fire code to Council, which will vote on it Sept. 11.
The standards include better roofing, siding and deck materials, better windows and doors and better attic screens.
The landscape will be altered in new homes in Mountain Shadows too. Trees won’t be allowed to hang over roofs, and plants won’t be right next to decks and houses. Instead, there has to be a 15 foot setback — a “defensible space” from houses and decks, particularly for pines and spruce trees and for certain types of plants.
Other changes include vinyl gutters with caps to keep out pine needles, and with a five-foot landing area if they melt and fall off the roof.
The standards are simple — but they could be costly. The stricter codes are estimated to add as much as 5 percent to a home, particularly if the homeowner has to upgrade to different siding or decks.
“The deck is going to be the most expensive thing,” said Joe Loidolt, a builder at Classic Homes who was one of the members of the task force designed to come up with different standards to prevent wildfires from decimating homes on the hillsides. “Composite decking, like Trex, can cost up to two times more — but it lasts longer.”
Loidolt said he felt the standards were reasonable, and that Lacey listened to builder concerns.
“He didn’t come in and say, ‘Build concrete bunkers so they won’t burn,’” he said. “These are commonsense changes that won’t protect every home, but could stop the widespread damage we have now.”
Some builders, however, think that when a fire reaches a neighborhood, it might be too late for the homes.
“That’s the epic fail,” said Mark Long, owner of Vanguard Homes. “If the fire is licking up against the house, there’s not much you can do.”
Lacey understands that in a wildfire, some homes will be lost from the flames moving into the wildland-urban interface. What he wants to stop is the conflagration that occurs from flying embers.
Cedar siding, redwood decks, cedar fencing all cause embers which can travel long distances in high winds, and catch a roof on fire or blow into the attic. Those fires, he said, are preventable with the right building materials.
“Trex decks (a type of wood-plastic composite) won’t burn,” said Loidolt. “They melt, so they won’t catch the house on fire.”
Stucco or cementitious siding — siding made of concrete instead of wood — are other ways to “harden” a house from fires. Long said those standards make sense.
“And they won’t cost that much more,” he said. “Stucco siding isn’t a lot more expensive, and it makes sense to protect the homes.”
Siding, landscaping and roofing changes could prevent widespread losses, Lacey said. The problems in Mountain Shadows were compounded by the small lots, which caused a conflagration of homes.
“None of this was surprising,” Lacey said. “This is the way fire behaves. The only really surprising thing was the cedar fencing. That also threw off embers that ignited homes. Firefighters had to make a choice about which structures to save. And it’s important to note that 82 percent of the homes threatened were saved.”
Lacey said he plans to address cedar fencing in future code changes, but needed to get more information and research before he made a suggestion.
Most of the Council agreed with the changes to the fire code. But Councilor Angela Dougan said she was hesitant to make the standards into law.
“If they want to do it voluntarily, I’ll cheer-lead that,” she said. “But telling people they have to do something — just because they live here — that is over-reaching. And it’s an over-reaction. These people pay for insurance, and rebuilding — that’s what insurance is for.”
Dougan also expressed dismay about saddling homeowners with additional costs.
“Most of those homes were in the $300,000 range,” she said. “Five percent adds on about $20,000. So we’re telling people do this, or don’t rebuild? Do this or build a smaller house?”
But the stricter standards have an upside, pointed out Councilor Tim Leigh, who is a Realtor.
“These changes are going to improve the property, and increase the value of the home,” he said. “It’ll be worth much more than that when they sell it, and they’ll make more money then they’re spending.”
The big unknown about newer standards: insurance payouts. Neither builders nor Lacey knew if individual insurance policies would pay for the more expensive materials.
“What we’ve found out with insurance companies and homeowners’ policies is that every single one is different,” Lacey said. “We just don’t know if they’ll pay for upgrades that weren’t there before.”
The Colorado Springs Housing and Building Association helped craft the new guidelines, and is working on guidelines for other neighborhoods in the wildland-urban interface. Those rules will be implemented later, but the city wanted to get standards set for people who were ready to rebuild in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood.
“The group working with Kyle (Campbell, the interim director of planning) wanted four more weeks to discuss and to come up with a set of standards for all the hillside development,” said Chief of Staff Laura Neumann. “I gave them that time, but we have people who want to rebuild in the Mountain Shadows area, so this had to be done more quickly.”
Two homeowners have completed the permitting process in Mountain Shadows, and both signed a voluntary agreement to implement the new standards. Council plans to vote on the fire code changes at its formal meeting Sept. 11.