Colorado is the third most wildfire-prone state, according to data compiled by the Insurance Information Institute, with 366,200 homes at high or extreme risk from wildfires last year. In 2017, nearly 111,670 acres were burned in wildfires. The Waldo Canyon Fire in 2012 was among the costliest wildfires nationwide since 1991, III found, with an estimated insured loss of $450 million.
The floods and mudslides that follow wildfires are just as devastating. The 2013 floods that swept through over a dozen Colorado counties destroyed 1,800 homes and caused $4 billion in damage—and cost 10 people their lives.
Although these natural disasters are unpredictable, there are ways landscape professionals can help reduce the impact these events have on their clients’ homes.
Resilient design is the principle that working with nature instead of against it can make homes and communities stronger and better able to withstand crises of the “acts of God” variety.
The American Society of Landscape Architects has a guide on resilient design that suggests ways that landscape architects can design spaces that can bounce back following a disaster.
Resilient design combines high-tech mitigation efforts like installing remote sensors to track humidity, wind and vegetation density, with low-tech strategies like designing defensible spaces around structures, ASLA recommends.
One of the challenges to resilient design is that every property is different, so landscapers who want to integrate these principles into their projects need to start from a blank slate with each project.
“Designing for resilience is really site specific,” Bill Melvin, owner of Ecoscape Environmental Design in Boulder, said. “Each property has its own challenges, whether it is going to be the potential for flooding, for fire, for earth movement.”
As such, landscape designers need to take a “multilayered approach toward working with the challenges of each site.”
Landscapers on the Western Slope are working in a more challenging region than other parts of the state. “The mountains, for better or worse, are more prone to the fires and the floods, and more damage naturally due to their geographical location and their terrain. Everything becomes compounded when you have slopes such as we do in the Foothills,” Melvin added.
Melvin said water diversion and fire mitigation practices are always common topics of discussion with his clients depending on the property they live on.
“So much of it entails analysis of the landscape; having a trained eye to be able to read the current needs, but also potential future needs for the property, for the plants, for the soil, for the typography,” he said.
Fires are natural part of ecosystem
The Colorado State Forest Service notes that wildfires are a natural part of the ecosystem and contribute to healthy forests. The agency estimates there are an average 3,189 wildfires in Colorado every year, 97% of which are contained before they spread to 100 acres.
Unfortunately, as more area is developed for residential and commercial use, more people are living and working in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), where man-made structures meet forested land and flammable vegetation. CSFS estimates that more than 2 million people live in the WUI and could be put at risk during a fire.
Danielle Andrus is the managing editor of Colorado Builder. She can be reached at [email protected].