May 25, 2022

After a devastating wildfire in the ’80s, Boulder rebuilt homes differently. After the Marshall fire, Louisville and Superior might do the same

4 min read

Lowery said Boulder was one of the first communities in the United States to require the roofing change and consider how building materials matter in a wildfire. The city started changing regulations before a national wildfire building code existed. Once the code was created, Boulder adopted it in 2013. 

After losing more than a thousand homes in the Marshall fire in December, both Louisville and Superior are considering doing the same.

Reconsidering which homes are at risk

Not all homes in the city of Boulder need to be built with stricter wildfire rules. Boulder pinpointed areas near forested areas close to the mountains, like where these newer homes on 4th Street were built. Lowery said it’s not just the homes that directly back up to the wild area that need to be built differently. He said houses a few streets or blocks in can create a protective barrier around an at-risk community. 

The city has focused its stricter building codes on areas with lots of trees. But the Marshall fire, which destroyed more than a thousand homes in Boulder County in December, ignited in open grassy areas before it quickly moved into neighborhoods. Lowery said Boulder is now taking another look at what parts of the city could be at risk. 

“Look at these prairie lands that surround some of these communities, and green belts or open space that a lot of our neighborhoods are built around. Those fall into a type of interface where a lot of people didn’t look at it that way prior,” Lowery said. 

Boulder is considering expanding its wildfire building requirements to other parts of the city, including grassy areas like those torched in the Marshall fire. The city of Boulder has little room to grow and space for new construction, which means expanding the rules would likely only apply to a small number of newly built homes, Lowery said.

Michael Elizabeth Sakas/CPR News
Boulder chief fire marshal David Lowery stands in front of a row of homes on Feb. 7, 2022. They were built to better withstand wildfire. The city adopted these stricture rules for at-risk areas in 2013.

The situation is different in Louisville and Superior. The two smaller suburban communities have more room for new homes and will see a boom in rebuilding after the Marshall fire, which is now considered the most destructive in state history.

Ana Bogusky owns one of the recently built Boulder homes, but she had no idea it was designed to withstand wildfire better. She’s relieved because she’s worried that climate change will mean more frequent wildfires. Her family evacuated during the Marshall fire, and the home her in-laws once lived in burned to the ground. 

“I’ve always had that like sort of false sense of security, where you think, ‘Oh they won’t let the houses burn,’” Bogusky said. “But we’re just building so close to these areas, or in these areas, that have been known to burn and they can’t stop it. It’s scary.” 

Bogusky’s daughter-in-law Jessica Milavitz also lives in the home. Milavitz grew up in the mountains of Boulder, and she said she’s been aware of wildfire danger her whole life. The fire risk is top of mind when looking for a future home. 

“I would like, only consider areas that have burned recently. Like no deep forests or anything like that,” Milavitz said. “And I always thought of like, further east [Boulder County] as the really safe area. [The Marshall fire] proves like, nowhere’s really safe anymore.” 

Milavitz said there’s a lot of anxiety when it comes to planning your life with climate change. A wildfire-resistant home might be part of that equation. 

Michael Elizabeth Sakas/CPR News
A new senior housing community under construction in Boulder on Feb. 7, 2022. The building is close to trees and mountains, so the city is requiring that it be built with wildfire-resistant material.

A wildfire-resistant home could be more expensive to build.

Lisa Ritchie, the principal city planner for Louisville, said the city is investigating how homes burned in the Marshall fire and what factors helped others survive. Officials are trying to figure out how the city could change its building regulations to better protect homes, businesses and lives. But she said the city is also trying to figure out how construction standards designed for forest fires might work for communities in grassy regions. 

“Most of these codes are adopted and written in communities that are heavily forested,” Ritchie said. “What does that mean for our Front Range communities adjacent to grasslands?” 

Ritchie said the city is also considering an incentive program where certain construction fees are reduced if a home is built with wildfire-resistant materials. 

As the city makes a decision, some who lost their homes in the fire are eager to rebuild — an urgency that has fueled tension around another set of recently adopted building codes to reduce climate-warming emissions and promote renewable energy. Ritchie said it’s likely that rebuilding will start before the city takes action on any new building codes.

“I think collectively it’s better to get it right than to rush it,” Ritchie said. 

https://www.cpr.org/2022/02/26/boulder-county-marshall-wildfires-home-construction/