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Durango Fire Marshal to shape wildfire building code on state board

Karola Hanks was nominated to serve as chair of the Wildfire Resiliency Code Board
Durango Fire Protection District Fire Marshal Karola Hanks was appointed to sit on the state’s Wildfire Resiliency Code Board. Hanks, looking over Durango toward the Missionary Ridge and 416 fires that came with in striking distance of the town, said Durango has been very, very lucky over the years. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Communities such as Durango and Bayfield are often referred to as “tinder boxes.”

They sit in an ill-defined area known as the wildland-urban interface, a term that refers to the areas where development meets the kinds of natural landscapes that are meant to experience periodic wildfires.

But there is very little regulation that applies to how (or if) homes in the WUI are built to withstand fire or maintained to avoid catastrophic loss.

In the next few years, that will change in Colorado, and one of Durango’s own experts will have a hand in the process.

Just five months after the legislation prompting its creation was signed into law, the Colorado Wildfire Resiliency Code Board convened for the first time Oct. 20 in Keystone.

The meeting kicked off a year-and-a-half of work that will result in a definition of the WUI and a statewide building and landscaping code for structures within it.

The board’s convention is a significant step toward making Colorado communities more adapted to wildfire and insurable against damage.

Karola Hanks, Durango Fire Protection District’s marshal of over a decade, was appointed to a two-year term on the board. She was nominated by the board’s members to serve as its chair, although the decision will ultimately be made by Executive Director of the Department of Public Safety Stan Hilkey.

The same weekend, Hanks was awarded “Fire Marshal of the year” by the Fire Marshal’s Association of Colorado.

“We're at a point, whether one agrees with climate change or does not, we know that the climate has changed for whatever reason, and our risk of wildfire and the homes potential to be lost in that is phenomenal,” Hanks said.

Her selection, which comes just months before her planned retirement from DFPD in February, was supported by regional officials who had voiced repeated concerns that Southwest Colorado might not have a loud enough voice as statewide codes are developed.

“Colorado’s fire problem continues to escalate and is becoming more complex,” said Division of Fire Protection and Control Director Mike Morgan in a news release. “The Code Board’s objective is to evaluate ways to best reduce the risks of these large fire incidents by searching for ways to do more to prevent and prepare for these devastating fires in the future.”

The board’s work will start by clarifying its duties and responsibilities, Hanks said. Statutorily, the board has until July 1, 2025 to define the WUI, and to finalize minimum codes and standards for hardening and reducing fire risk in the defensible space around structures that fall within it.

A map showing wildfire risk across the state, created by the Colorado State Forest Service. The state forester will serve on the Wildfire Resiliency Code Board in an ex officio capacity. (Courtesy of the Colorado State Forest Service)

Part of the board’s charge will also be to establish a process by which governing bodies can petition the board for modifications, hear appeals and handle various other administrative responsibilities.

“That’s a lot,” Hanks said.

There are 21 voting members and three nonvoting members who represent a broad swath of stakeholders, including homebuilders, elected officials in jurisdictions with and without WUI codes, planning professionals and fire experts.

DPS Director Hilkey appointed 10 members; Speaker of the House Rep. Julie McCluskie appointed four; President of the Senate Steve Fenberg appointed three; Senate and House minority leaders each appointed two members, and the three nonvoting members are the heads (or their designees) of state agencies.

“It's a very diverse group of individuals, which is excellent for this, with representation from a large number of areas across the state,” Hanks said.

The Durango marshal is the only representative from Southwest Colorado.

La Plata County Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton said that Hanks’ appointment “gives me extremely great comfort.”

Colorado regulatory bodies with existing WUI codes will have the opportunity to apply for an exemption from the state regulations if the local code is deemed acceptable by the board.

Officials in La Plata County, which does not have a code currently, have previously stated they intend to closely watch the board’s work and determine whether they will try to implement a local code after reviewing the board’s preliminary work.

The board’s members will likely look to an assortment of existing codes, such as those drafted by the National Fire Protection Association, the International Code Council and various local governments around the state.

Whichever policy the board does write is likely to have a positive impact on homeowners’ insurance options in Colorado – something Hanks says is a priority for her and the board as a whole.

Across the state, rates have increased dramatically, while providers have shrunk coverage areas, a 2022 report presented to the Colorado Division of Insurance found.

The problem means that insurance rates – or the absence of providers willing to offer coverage – can become a prohibitive factor to potential homebuyers.

“Yes, I want our people to be safe, I don't want people to lose their homes in a wildfire,” Hanks said. “But I also know that in looking at this, we have to address that insurance issue or people can't have the homes to begin with.”

The risk wildfires poses to structures ties together Colorado communities, especially those mountain towns nestled in surrounding forests. With 18 months worth of work ahead of them, Hanks says the board’s members intend to hold meetings in communities across the state in order to collect input from a diverse array of stakeholders.

“I think that's a statewide problem, not just a southwest Colorado problem,” Hanks said. “It may be more prevalent in the mountain communities because we're more in the WUI, but I think that actually brings us all together – knowing that we're all sharing the same challenge of that availability and affordability.”


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