Drought brings greater risk of wildfire to suburban homes

Sunday, June 16, 2002

ROXBOROUGH VILLAGE, Colo. -- Even when ash dusted his driveway and smoke hung over his roof, Chris Sutton held fast to the belief that fire would not take his home.

There are no towering pines in his neighborhood, a half-hour's drive from Denver. He doesn't live off a dirt road in a forest. His is a tract community of neat homes with a small park and a soon-to-be-built retail center.

Wildfire is not supposed to come here.

Yet this summer, in Roxborough Village and communities like it across the West, it could. Record dry conditions there have spawned a destructive breed of wildfire, rapidly spreading flames from forests to housing developments.

"When you have a drought situation like this, it really doesn't matter where you are." said Janelle Smith, spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center.

Already, 573 structures have been destroyed by wildfire this year in the United States, including 270 in Colorado, according to the fire center.

That compares with 731 structures for all of 2001 and 861 in 2000 -- the nation's worst fire season in a half-century. The agency does not track how many of those structures are houses.

Sutton and his neighbors were put on evacuation alert last week as wildfire raced through the Colorado wilderness and burned to an area just 7 miles from their homes.

"You live in Colorado, you think about fire, but you don't think your whole community could get evacuated," said Sutton, 31, whose house was built only a year ago. "If you live in the foothills, you think of it every day, but we're more in the suburbs. This shouldn't burn."

The fire threatening Sutton's home ignited June 8 in a remote slice of the Pike National Forest, 55 miles southwest of Denver. Within days, the blaze exploded to 75,000 acres, fueled by strong wind and a forest thick with vegetation sucked dry by years of drought.

Thousands of residents across a swath of Colorado were evacuated while thousands more -- including those in about 1,500 homes in Roxborough Village -- were told to be ready just in case.

On Saturday, 5,300 people remained out of their homes as firefighters fought to control the blaze, now at 102,000 acres. It was 30 percent contained. Twenty-five homes have been destroyed, though thousands more are at risk.

Homes have long been growing susceptible to wildfire as more people trade city life for mountain respite. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, 38 percent of new home construction in the West is within or adjacent to what's known as the wildland-urban interface, where people meet forest.

Earlier this year, two dozen homes were destroyed in a wind- and drought-driven blaze near Ruidoso, N.M. An additional 45 homes burned down in Fallbrook, Calif., north of San Diego, and 270 structures, including more than 80 homes, were demolished this month in Canyon City, Colo.

"Just about everything that can burn is at a condition where it will," said Jack Cohen, a Forest Service scientist who studies how homes are destroyed during wildfires. "Fires are going to get larger and spread faster. That means the houses are going to become more vulnerable."

Cohen, who examined the 2000 blaze in Los Alamos, N.M, that claimed more than 200 houses, noted that homes need not be flanked by pine trees to face destruction. In Los Alamos, the culprit was burning embers falling on flammable roofs or igniting mats of pine needles and brush. Other hazards include wood roofs, dead brush and timber piles.

Oregon hands out grants to help homeowners make their homes more fireproof; those who don't could be liable for firefighting costs should a blaze start on their property. In Colorado, some counties require developers to thin trees before granting building permits.

Yet the threat of wildfire itself has done little to dissuade developers from building near forests -- or people from moving there.

"It's gorgeous. That's why you live down here," said Sutton. His home, in the shadow of the Colorado Front Range, has a wood deck with views of a scrub-covered ridge called the hogback. A state park is just down the road. "It's the suburbs with a taste of the mountains," he said.

Less than a mile from Sutton's home, construction crews have been hard at work on hundreds of new houses. A couple toured model homes, while another sat in a real estate office, finalizing their purchase.

Even as ash dusted driveways and smoke hung over the roofs, one builder reported three new sales.

EDITOR'S NOTE -- Pauline Arrillaga is the AP's Southwest regional writer, based in Phoenix.

On the Net:

National Interagency Fire Center: http://www.nifc.gov

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