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Fire code issues still a hot spot

One year after the massive Black Forest fire that burned 14,280 acres and destroyed 486 homes, regulations regarding structures in the Wildland Urban Interface are still sparking controversy.The WUI is defined as areas where structures are built near or among lands prone to wildland fire, according to to the December 2013 issue of The New Falcon Herald, the Falcon Fire Protection District and six other local fire districts met with the El Paso County Board of Commissioners Nov. 21, 2103, to discuss the 2009 International Fire Code. The other districts included Black Forest, Wescott, Cimarron Hills, Hanover and Security.At that meeting, members from the Housing and Building Association of Colorado Springs voiced concern with several items within the code as presented, causing a sticking point for the commissioners.At the Dec. 10, 2013, BOCC meeting, the commissioners unanimously voted to adopt the 2009 International Fire Code, with local amendments. However, they deleted the entire section of the IFC pertaining to the WUI, according to the January 2014 issue of The New Falcon Herald.The deleted section of the 2009 IFC, known as Appendix K, set requirements for structures within the WUI for defensible space, access for firefighting vehicles, proper property addressing, sufficient water supply and that hardened structures be built with noncombustible materials to resist igniting in the event of a wildland fire, the NFH article states.Also, the BOCC directed county staff to investigate what it would take to integrate the WUI regulations into the countyís land development code. The goal was to have a draft of the requirements presented to the commissioners in March, said Trent Harwig, FFPD chief.ìWe had given direction (to county staff) to take a look at a WUI code and what it would look like to have one of those added to the (land development) code,î said Amy Lathen, county commissioner. ìWe had never committed to anything. They (county staff) did put some things together, and weíve discovered that the WUI code would just be duplicate regulations of what we have in the land development code.îLathen said that all the WUI regulations are in the fire protection and wildfire mitigation section of the LDC and are based on the regulations taken from the National Fire Protection Agency. Adding a WUI code to the fire code the county has already adopted would have been redundant, she said.ìWe were asking for specifics on the WUI,î Lathen said. ìWe wanted them to bring that forward and what it would look like in our code. They (county staff) showed us what it would require (to adopt a WUI code) and we said, ëWell, we donít need to hear that because weíve already got it. There was just no support on the board for an agenda item but there was work done on our part with staff.îHarwig said that pulling out everything in Appendix K ultimately meant that the county pulled out more regulations than they intended. ìIf they were hung up on the hardened structures piece, we could work with that,î he said. ìThey couldíve removed just that piece but instead they took the whole thing out.îSome of the regulations in Appendix K were based on ordinances the city of Colorado Springs adopted in their fire code, after the Waldo Canyon Fire, Harwig said. The fire code that Tri-Lakes Monument Fire Protection District submitted to the county, which they approved, contained WUI regulations similar to Appendix K, he said.Lathen said if the county approved a WUI code like Appendix K, it would have to be adopted in whole. ìIt would be across the board for the whole county,î she said. ìThis county is far too diverse for a one-size-fits-all code. Having the NFPA model in the land development code gives us the ability to respond and react in different areas based on their conditions, whereas a WUI code doesnít.îHarwig said that mitigation requirements like those in Appendix K are a necessity because they help protect everyone. ìThe mitigation helps defend your home from the fire and your fire from the forest,î he said.ìDo we go into private property to compel them to mitigate?î Lathen said. ìDo we have that authority, and do we want to for mitigation on private property? Weíve said that weíre not going to dictate on private property. We do require those mitigation efforts on new builds, in new subdivisions. But we have chosen the voluntary compliance option with a tremendous public relations and educational effort to help people understand that, unquestionably, itís helpful … but itís not a guarantee of anything and that factors into our decision to mandate these things.ìWe did reject a few of the things that the fire districts wanted, and we felt they were overreaching. But that wasnít done blindly at the expense of public safety, and we are very strict about private property rights.îRick Shearer, FFPD attorney, said property rights issues affect everyone living in the WUI or forested areas. ìIf your house catches fire and thereís no way for a district to have a shot to protect your area; and your property is the one that goes because you have a strong feeling about your own property rights, youíre interfering with other peopleís property rights and their safety,î Shearer said.Lathen reiterated that mitigation requirements are in the land development code, which allows the county to retain local control of the requirements on behalf of constituents.ìIf there are specific issues that they feel are of concern, letís talk about those,î Lathen said. ìLetís first see how we can implement those in the land development code.îìState statute says that if a county wants to establish a fire code … you have to establish first a standing committee of all the fire chiefs in the county,î Shearer said. Although the county added fire safety regulations to the land development code, those regulations are still considered a fire code. ìThey (commissioners) need to follow the statutory procedures for adopting the code,î Shearer said.Harwig said he believes if the fire districts can work with the HBA to agree on some of the regulations from Appendix K, the county would likely adopt them. ìIf the HBA and the fire districts came to an agreement, the county would be happy,î he said. ìWe havenít come to an agreement yet, and there are some things that need to be done and that we canít live without. We have to have some of the stuff that was taken out put back in because itís in the best interest of the people that live in the interface.îLathen said she is confident the HBA and the fire districts can come to an agreement, adding that they welcome discussions but the BOCC will not initiate further actions on the fire code issue.

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