Cupp: Firefighters across Colorado need state lawmakers to have our backs

Doug Cupp
Courtesy photo

You don’t need to be a firefighter to know that Colorado has a serious and sustained wildfire problem.

Each year, the length of the wildfire “season” stretches. With each fire, there seems to be an increasing intensity and destructive power. And the risk to firefighters only grows with each increase. Over the past several years, I have been assigned to fires that burnt 100,000 acres in less than one day, took lives and destroyed hundreds of homes in just hours. We have never seen these trends and they are creating enormous risks to firefighters and our communities.

As we have seen across our state, the destruction is particularly severe in those places where our neighborhoods meet our more wild areas, something called the wildland-urban interface. The number of homes we’ve built in that area more than doubled between 1990 and 2020. That puts about 17 percent of Colorado’s 2.2 million homes at high to extreme risk of wildfire danger. And more than 660,000 of us live in areas deemed to be at “highest wildfire risk.”

The cost to families who have lost homes is real and their cost can’t really be calculated. Our communities also pay a high price for these disasters. Damage from wildfires in just the last three years in our state has totaled $2.5 billion dollars. And that is just the immediate cost. Many communities spend years helping residents rebuild as well as monitoring and reclaiming water quality and revegetating burn areas to help avoid erosion and mudslides.

As firefighters, we know the danger and risks. We take them because we want to serve our communities. We are always encouraged by the outpouring of support we see from so many as we work to fight fires and save homes, businesses and our wild places. Now we need to see that same support from state lawmakers as they consider a plan that would actually help us in our work.

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Soon they will begin debating a proposal that would lead to the creation of minimum standards for making new construction of homes and other buildings more resistant to fire. The new policy would establish a building code board whose job it would be to identify the highest risk fire areas in the state and develop standards for new construction as well as substantial renovations to existing buildings that would require fire-resistant materials and the creation of defensible space. The specifics of those new standards will be developed by a board of experts including those who work in building codes, fire safety, homebuilding, land use, and community planning, local governments, building trades, utilities, commercial building, and property and casualty insurance.

We know how to fire-harden our homes and businesses. Some cities in our state already require this type of building. But many do not. Shouldn’t everyone buying a new home or renting a home have confidence that they are as protected from wildfire as their neighbors? The types of materials and technology the board will consider are not new. It is being employed in our state and across the country in other states that share a similar wildfire risk like Utah, Washington and California. The Federal Emergency Management Agency says that adopting building codes for fire-hardening homes is the best mitigation strategy. It’s honestly just common sense.

Requiring simple minimum standards for fire-resistant construction in areas at the highest fire risk will not drive up the costs of construction. National studies of just this issue prove that there is little to no cost difference. One national study shows that for every $1 invested in fire-hardening new construction, communities saved $4 in overall cost.

Like many western states, Colorado has a long history of developing building codes that help to protect the public against real threats and also that respond to tragedies by trying to ensure they don’t happen again. With the escalation of our wildfire seasons, there’s no way to make ourselves 100 percent protected. But we can do much more than we are today. And building codes that fortify all new construction is one proven method.

As firefighters, we’re willing to put our lives on the line to protect and serve our communities. But we need elected officials to show us this same dedication. And we need all Coloradans to have the peace of mind in knowing our state is doing all it can to keep communities safe from wildfire.

Doug Cupp is fire chief for Greater Eagle Fire in Eagle Colorado. He participates as operations section chief and safety officer on Incident Management Teams that respond to large-scale wildfires. He has been preparing communities, training firefighters, and responding to large-scale events for over 25 years.