With huge acreages, immense palls of harmful smoke, and dramatic images, big wildfires make headlines. The best indicator of likely losses from a wildfire is not its size, however, but rather its co-occurrence with human-built structures. This was demonstrated 10 years ago, when the Waldo Canyon Fire burned through communities at the eastern foot of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Although not huge in area—it consumed 18,247 acres—the Waldo Canyon Fire destroyed more than 340 homes and was the costliest in state history at the time with insurance claims totaling more than USD 350 million. To put this in a little perspective, the contemporaneous 87,000-acre High Park Fire in the mountains west of Fort Collins, Colorado—then the third largest in the state’s history—resulted in insured losses estimated at the time at a comparatively modest USD 97 million.
With extremely conducive weather, 2012 was a devastating year for wildfires in Colorado. Winter 2011/2012 had only 13% of the average precipitation, leading to extremely dry conditions before the start of a summer that brought a record-breaking heat wave. These factors contributed to the 2012 North American Drought, which has been implicated in many uncontrolled wildfires as well as wreaking havoc on crops and water supply. Fourteen major fires occurred across Colorado over the course of the summer, many of which burned concurrently with the Waldo Canyon Fire.
The fire was first spotted on June 23, 2012. It grew quickly and by the following day the Cedar Heights community of Colorado Springs was experiencing a low ember shower. Several structures were actively defended, and no homes were destroyed thanks to suppression efforts and a fortunate change in wind direction. The constantly changing wind conditions made containment efforts extremely challenging, however, and on June 26 the fire turned east, exploded in size, and with maximum wind gusts exceeding 90 mph, rushed directly toward the city of Colorado Springs.
In the early afternoon the fire crossed the mountain ridge and entered the Mountain Shadows neighborhood northeast of the city center. The area was first exposed to sustained ember showers and then to the main front of the fire itself. As the winds drastically increased from 5–10 mph to 50–60 mph in a 10-minute period, the fire quickly overtook suppression efforts and structures began to burn. Many that were not initially ignited by the main fire front were set alight later, presumably by embers generated by other structures nearby. Spot fires were a significant problem for suppressing and containing the fire, given the urban location and high wind speeds.
From Mountain Shadows, the fire continued to progress north and then east; it was not finally contained until July 10. Of the 347 homes destroyed, 239 were in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood where the Parkside community lost 141 of its 178 homes. In the immediate aftermath most residents left the area, many of them for good; it has been estimated that only about half eventually returned.
Before the Waldo Canyon Fire, wildfire risk was keenly appreciated in Colorado Springs, where a quarter of the population lives in a wildfire zone. Measures had been undertaken to mitigate the risk. The city had banned wood shingles on all new homes and roof replacements in 2003, and the gated community of Cedar Heights, for example, was protected by a forest-thinning project as well as the change in wind direction on June 23. But before Waldo Canyon the fire marshal had rated 71 of the homes destroyed in Mountain Shadows as “high” or “very high” fire risks, and more than 270 as “moderate” risks. Many of those dwellings had little defensible space around them and 20 had wooden roofs and/or siding.
Recovery from the fire began almost immediately as the mayor, builders, contractors, insurers, businesses, the utility company, and remaining residents united. Before long the non-profit organization Colorado Springs Together had been formed, “to restore the lives, homes and neighborhoods impacted by the Waldo Canyon Fire … quickly and effectively.” Thanks largely to this initiative, the Mountain Shadows neighborhood accomplished a near-complete recovery comparatively quickly.
Within a month or so, the city had issued the impacted area’s first rebuilding permit and 12 months later 90 homes had been completed and another 100 were under construction. Two years or so after the fire 250 homes, 77% of those lost, had been rebuilt. But most of the new homes are larger than the ones they replaced, 13.8% bigger on average, and are valued correspondingly higher.
The Waldo Canyon wildfire no longer ranks in the top 10 costliest (insured) U.S. wildfires, nor is it still the most destructive Colorado wildfire, as it was surpassed by the Black Forest Fire in 2013, the East Troublesome Fire in 2020, and the Marshall Fire at the very end of 2020, which is now the most destructive Colorado wildfire, but it remains a prime example of the significant losses fires can cause when they spread into the wildland urban interface (WUI). Verisk’s Fireline estimates that currently there are 22,400 housing units in the high and extreme wildfire risk categories in El Paso County (where Colorado Springs is located)—and it is only the fourth highest-risk county in Colorado. It has been estimated that the area burned by wildfire in California will double by 2050, but that in the same period the increase in Colorado will be more than 600%. As the quantity and value of property in the WUI continue to increase and climate change is being blamed for enhanced wildfire activity, property losses are only going to grow.