Given that Boulder County has experienced several large fires, months ahead of what had once been considered the traditional wildfire season, the Boulder City Council is considering a topic on the mind of many: wildfire protection and resiliency.
“The proliferation of increased natural disasters has certainly been felt by so many of us right here in our community over the past several months,” City Manager Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde said.
Tuesday’s Boulder City Council study session topic was added late, after several fires, including the NCAR Fire, which left some councilmembers in the evacuation zone.
Wildfire resiliency is an effort that requires collaboration across multiple city departments, including fire, open space and emergency management.
“I don’t think there’s a department in the city that isn’t called to action when a wildfire disaster does occur in our area,” Boulder Fire-Rescue Chief Mike Calderazzo said. “Really, it is an all-hands kind of effort.”
Boulder is surrounded by a green belt of open space, so the way in which the land is managed is important, Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks Director Dan Burke said.
For example, the department thins trees and uses cattle for grazing, both of which made a positive impact during the NCAR Fire, which burned around Bear Canyon Trail just south of the NCAR facility in late March, Burke noted.
In Boulder, there are a number of specific plans, including the emergency operations plan and the community wildfire protection plan. Some of these are scheduled for an update soon, and Calderazzo argued that would be the best time to gather feedback and rework topics such as fire evacuation routes.
Further, the city in 2022 will be adopting its comprehensive flood and stormwater master plan and its drought plan, both of which will play a role in wildfire resiliency, Calderazzo noted.
Councilmember Matt Benjamin grew up in southern California, where people are aware of evacuation routes and know exactly where to go in the event of a wildfire.
Colorado isn’t there yet, but Calderazzo hopes to cultivate this in Boulder so everyone understands what to do and where to go during an emergency.
Similarly, the various alert systems are on the community’s mind after there have been challenges with under- and overnotifying in some of the recent fires, city staff noted.
After the NCAR Fire, Boulder’s Office of Emergency Management developed a more prominent presence on its website for alerts and evacuation orders sent by dispatch. It’s meant to serve as a one-stop place for information.
Mayor Aaron Brockett asked about the local warning siren system. Following the recent wildfires, he said there have been questions about how and when the sirens are turned on to alert people.
“We’ve used it in the past, and we’ve had limited success with it,” Calderazzo said.
Boulder used the system during the 2013 flood. However, in some cases, the sirens sent people toward the danger, not away from it, he noted.
Moving forward, the City Council will now be receiving quarterly updates on wildfire mitigation and prevention. Councilmembers also suggested some potential policy changes, such as an update to the city’s building codes or a potential pilot program that would connect neighbors ahead of emergencies.
And as the climate crisis continues to impact the area, Councilmember Nicole Speer said she’d like to see more available mental health resources.
“None of this stuff is easy to deal with,” she said.