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BOCC adopts fire code amid controversy

The El Paso County Board of County Commissioners unanimously voted Dec. 10 to adopt the 2009 International Fire Code, with local amendments. However, it wasnít the version of the code proposed by the Falcon Fire Protection District and six other local fire districts.A step backIn a move that surprised FFPDís fire chief and board of directors, the BOCC deleted an entire section of the amended 2009 IFC pertaining to residential structures built in the Wildland Urban Interface. The section known as Appendix K, which included requirements for defensible space, access for firefighting vehicles and the addressing of properties, had actually been in effect for seven years as part of the 2003 IFC adopted in 2006.Under the proposed 2009 IFC, Appendix K would have also included requirements that hardened structures be built with noncombustible materials to resist igniting from a wildland fire. This requirement mirrored the December 2012 ordinance enacted by the city of Colorado Springs following the Waldo Canyon fire, and was added to the county fire districtsí proposed Appendix K six months before the Black Forest fire.Instead of deleting the hardened structure requirements, which FFPD fire chief Trent Harwig said were a point of contention with the county commissioners, the BOCC struck out the entire Appendix K.ìRight now, if you build a home in the wildland interface, there is no water supply requirement, there is no defensible space requirement, there is no road access requirement, thereís no addressing requirement, thereís nothing,î Harwig said at the Dec. 11 board of directors meeting. ìIn other words, itís the wild west. If you want to build in the interface, thereís no fire code requirement.ìItís shocking to me when this county has had the two most destructive fires in Colorado history. The commissioners chose to do a 180 and strip what we have had in place completely out of it (the fire code). Not just whatís here now, but what weíve been enforcing since 2006.îAttorney Richard Shearer, FFPD legal counsel, said the commissioners took away protection from ìthose structures that are most vulnerable.î In the wake of the Black Forest fire, he questioned why the county would reject the same standards the city adopted after the Waldo Canyon experience. Shearer referred to the move as ìmind-boggling.îHarwig later said the BOCCís actions were a ìgiant step back in interface safety.î He said fire codes develop over time because of lessons learned from past fires, not just locally but across the country. ìOur goal is to do whatever we can to minimize the impact of the next fire.îInconsistency in WUI codesHarwig said that the WUI requirements of the code proposed by the fire districts were not a knee-jerk reaction to recent wildfires. ìThis has been in the works way before the Black Forest fire, and even before the Waldo Canyon fire,î he said.The process to adopt the 2009 IFC began in 2010 through the efforts of a consortium of local fire agencies, including the Falcon, Black Forest, Cimarron Hills, Wescott, Security, Hanover and Peyton fire protection districts. Tri-Lakes Monument Fire Protection District was part of the initial group but broke away to adopt its own version of the 2009 IFC, which the BOCC approved in January 2013.Ironically, the Tri-Lakes Monument fire code still includes Appendix K as it was worded in the 2003 IFC. It does not require hardened structures changes, but it does address requirements for residential construction in the WUI, including access, address marking, class A roofing materials and defensible space ñ all items the county commissioners struck out of the code for the other fire districts.Vernon Champlin, FFPD division chief and fire marshal, said, ìThe fire districts created and presented one proposal. The county commissioners took our proposal, cut it up, modified it, added to it and deleted from it; and created their own code amendments … they took out all the wildland urban interface requirements.îWhat happens in the WUI now?In its resolution to approve the 2009 IFC with amendments and revisions, the BOCC said it rejected Appendix K in its entirety because provisions for the WUI were more appropriately addressed in the countyís land development code or other county regulations. The BOCC also directed county staff to integrate WUI requirements into the land development code, including ìwater supply, hardened structures, access to premises and other applicable amendments.îBoth Harwig and Champlin have doubts about including WUI requirements in the county land development code. Champlin said it is ìa huge concernî because the IFC is a building code that applies to individual structures, while the land development code applies to land at the time itís developed.ìThere are no promises that it will be adopted or that the land development code will be changed,î Harwig said. ìThey just said if thereís going to be a wildland urban interface code, itís going to be part of the land development code.î The LDC already contains provisions for firefighting water supply at the time that land is developed, but Harwig said enforcement has long been an issue. ìHistorically, they (the county) havenít enforced their land development code on water supply, which is what got us here in the first place.îAnother concern is how WUI requirements for individual structures will be enforced, since years can pass between the time of development and the time a structure is actually built. ìWhoís going to enforce them?î Harwig said. ìIs it going to apply to individual homes down the road, 10 years from now when theyíre being built on those divided lots?îRural water fund no moreThe BOCC county commissioners also enacted another significant provision that prohibits monetary contributions to water funds as a means to meet fire code requirements for firefighting water supply. Its resolution stated that ìpayment into a fund in lieu of fire code compliance … is ineffectual and does not protect the health, safety, or welfare of El Paso Countyís citizens.îFFPD created its rural water fund as an alternative for developers and homeowners to meet fire flow requirements in areas lacking municipal water systems and fire hydrants. Participation in the fund is voluntary, and the monies collected can be used to purchase and install water cisterns, install dry hydrants in ponds and purchase and/or maintain water tanker trucks. Harwig said FFPD now has enough in its rural water fund to purchase and install a 30,000-gallon cistern in Black Forest Reserve, which has contributed the most to the fund since its inception. The cistern is planned for 2014.The BOCCís decision to adopt the 2009 International Fire Code minus recommendations by the fire districts could have far-reaching implications, according to the general consensus among firefighters.Editorís note: The New Falcon Herald will continue following the fire code issues ñ look for more in February.

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