FOURMILE CANYON, Colo. -- On a hot afternoon in late September, Allen Owen looked into the distance, hoping for rain.
He crawled along unmarked dirt roads in his white Dodge Ram four-wheel drive truck, passing handwritten signs saying, "Thank you firefighters!" and "Be hopeful!" surveying the mounds of charred metal and debris that had been homes just three weeks earlier.
There was other damage he couldn't see. The state's emergency wildfire fund was now down to zero -- drained to extinguish the blazes that cut through more than 6,000 acres of land that month. As for the local and federal firefighting forces that brought the fire under control after eight days, they were exhausted.
Though the fire had been contained, Owen, the Boulder District forester for the Colorado State Forest Service, was still worried. Fire had dried out the trees and brush that had not succumbed to the blazes, and the resulting risk of future fire on the Front Range was high.
Weeks earlier, fierce winds had apparently helped embers from a backyard fire pit take flight, and the resulting megafire had destroyed more than 160 homes in an area where fancy suburban houses are nestled in woodland settings several miles west of Boulder.
Land managers call places like this "the wildland-urban interface," or WUI, for short. As Western forests grow hotter and drier, WUI areas have become an increasingly risky and expensive proposition for nearly everyone involved.
This most recent fire cost roughly $10 million to fight and caused an estimated $217 million in property damage, making it the most expensive wildfire in Colorado history.
Fires like this put questions about climate change into stark relief: With climate models predicting snowpack melts earlier, giving way to future hotter, drier summers, there will likely be increased fire risk. Meanwhile, homes that are continuing to sprout up within wildlands are not helping the situation.
Roughly 20 percent of Coloradans -- 1 million people -- have chosen to live close to nature, surrounded by that wilderness high-risk space. But the same trees that give homeowners their seclusion also could incinerate their property.
That amplified fire risk, in turn, translates into higher suppression costs. Where firefighters might normally just let a fire go, they rush in to stop it if houses and people are in danger -- requiring costly maneuvering. "The more residents you have [in such areas], the more expensive the fire becomes," said Bret Gibson, chief of the Four Mile Fire Protection District.
Nearly half of the U.S. Forest Service budget has been consumed by fire suppression costs in recent years. People moving into high-risk wildland zones, decades of fire suppression policies, and climate change are the prime factors fueling those escalating costs.
But in Colorado, at least, the people who chose to live in homes abutting wilderness are not planning on surrendering the territory. In fact, the state's population is projected to blossom in the next 30 years -- with much of the growth expected to occur in those woodsy areas, according to the Colorado Statewide Forest Resource Assessment.
Trying to reduce risks can be frustrating
Homeowners can choose to fortify their homes against flames, but many opt against it. Some feel edicts that they completely clear 3-foot buffer zones and thin out surrounding trees infringe on their property rights. It's their private land, residents say, and Gibson and Owen hear a lot of talk about minding their own business.
Others mistakenly see thinning and clearing as altering the "natural state" of the woods. In reality, according to Gibson, the crowded stands of trees are what's really unnatural. Prior to the 19th century gold rush, wildfires maintained much thinner forests than exist today.
In the end, a confusing set of local regulations requires new homeowners to mitigate fire risk, but for the most part, Gibson is dealing with long-standing residents -- some of whom won't budge on their objections even when they sit in the middle of a fire risk zone. In such cases, Gibson must scrap the project or work around them. This happens with about half of all proposed projects, he said.
"We are looked at and asked how are you going to prevent fires, but that is like blaming the police for you failing to lock your back door when you get robbed," said Gibson. "We are not land managers. We don't own the land. We don't have the authority to make people take action -- it ain't our fire," he said.
Effort and luck pay off
Some individuals do choose to take the recommended steps, but mitigation is not cheap.
Jay and Annette Donaghy have poured several thousand dollars into thinning around their home, even after they netted federal grants to help with the work. And nearby, some 35 homeowners also banded together to do a huge thinning project two years ago. Those residents put in almost $40,000 of their own funds that was matched by a federal $40,000 grant.
With prevention, the direct payoff is difficult to discern, since fire is so unpredictable. The Donaghys and the participants in the $80,000 project, for example, were not hit in the most recent fire, due to changes in winds and aerial drops of powerful retardant that stifled the fire.
Still, the thinning, they say, helps them sleep better at night.
"I have no doubt that if the wind had blown our way [with this fire], the mitigation would have made a huge difference," said Annette Donaghy.
"Initially, it's just beautiful to live out here, but once you go through a few fires and have to evacuate, you start to think about things differently," said Jay Donaghy.
Nearby resident Deward Walker credits mitigation with slowing the fire and limiting its intensity once it hit his property -- saving his home. The fire crept up to the bases of some of his trees on mitigated sections of his 200 acres of property and burned through some tracts of trees in his unmitigated area, but it did not reach his house and was unable to creep up to the trees' crowns.
But his home's survival wasn't all about the mitigation: "It also involved some luck of the draw in that winds favored us for a while during the height of the fire," he said.
Studying what works and what doesn't
In the aftermath of the fire, Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) surveyed the scene from the passenger seat of Owen's truck. Boulder County is Udall's home, too, though he lives about a half-hour's drive south from the affected area. After he saw the damages, Udall went back to Washington, D.C., calling for a comprehensive public study of the fire -- just as he did with the state's 138,000-acre Hayman Fire in 2002.
He wants to explore how effective thinning on lands in the area was in "stopping or slowing the fire, reducing fire intensity, and reducing soil damage," he wrote in a letter to the state's governor and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
The study, which Udall anticipates will take less than a year to complete and cost about $75,000, will investigate other factors, including how aerial firefighting played into the response and availability of needed resources. This fire, unlike others in Colorado's history, also occurred mostly on private lands, so it hit more homes than in the past -- providing more study fodder.
"We need to look at how our efforts to create healthy forests and prevent wildfire are working," Udall said. The senator knows resources to fight fires are limited, and he's determined to spend them wisely.
The data from Udall's planned study and another by a private firm will only be able to do so much, however. Even if the information indicates that fuel treatments helped limit the scope of the damage to individual homes, local firefighters and law personnel cannot force homeowners to read it or spur them to act.
Forest thinning saves lives
When homeowners do all the recommended things -- building their homes with more fire-resistant materials and engaging in thinning practices -- that still may not be enough to guarantee a home will be safe from future blazes.
One person's mitigation, for example, may be too small to make a huge difference. If the Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management owns the lands next door -- which is common, since 68 percent of Colorado's forests are federally owned -- it may take years for mitigation requests to cut through the red tape. Meanwhile, fuel buildup next door could heighten fire risk.
Sometimes people get fed up with waiting and take the matter into their own hands -- clearing or thinning the government-owned lands themselves, facing fines if they are caught, said Owen. He declined to mention any specific incidents, since he lives in the community.
Overall, thinning recommendations' being carried out around homes and escape roads saved lives, according to Owen. Despite the far-reaching property damage in the Fourmile Canyon fire, there were no fatalities. "It may be a pipe dream, but I think [mitigation] is the reason," he said.
Memories of catastrophes can fade
Since the fire, calls into Owen's office about creating threat-reducing buffer zones around homes have been up. While he used to receive about five calls a week regarding mitigation, now he is getting about 20, he said. Owen is not optimistic this will be a long-lived change.
When the Hayman Fire hit Colorado eight years ago, it, too, increased awareness of wildfires and made them more real for residents. But that did not translate into action.
Affected homeowners told researchers after the fire that they were not planning on taking any particular actions to "firesafe" their homes. "The damage had already been done," some homeowners said. Others maintained they liked their remaining trees. "Thinning conflicted with [residents'] original purpose to build their house in a such a setting," the report concluded.
On the ground, Gibson hears similar sentiments all the time. "It takes catastrophic events to wake people up, and I think that wake-up time is short-lived until the next news cycle," said Gibson. "For some people, this will stick for a lifetime, and they will be ambassadors for community safety," he said.
"For others," he said, "by the first snowfall, the problem is gone."
Correction: "Wilderness-urban interface" was corrected to read "wildland-urban interface."