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Saturday, June 30, 2012

What's wrong with this picture?

Climate change is the new normal. Adapting to climate change will be hard enough. 
The poor souls in Colorado Springs in those sprawl subdivisions simply should not have been put in Nature’s way. It’s not her fault, it’s ours.
What are the lessons for campus sustainability?
By Dave Newport

What's wrong with this picture? Incinerated subdivision in Colorado Springs.
It is truly sad so many people lost their homes—and some lost their lives—in the recent Colorado wildfires. We have friends in Colorado Springs at risk, friends in Ft. Collins fighting the fires and risking their homes, we had a fire break out in Boulder’s foothills that sent some of our friends packing, and we are sincerely concerned for everyone impacted by all the fires.

Our campus sustainability colleagues in Ft. Collins and Colorado Springs report that they and their homes dodged the bullet, they are fine, but that many of their friends and colleagues were not so lucky. Our Boulder colleagues are fine if unsettled. Our hearts go out to all. The loss of life and homes is awful.

We have written previously that these fires represent the front lines in the fight against climate change. While climate scientists are loath to directly connect any specific weather events to climate change, the overall trend of extreme weather events comports with the predictions of the IPCC. Floods, drought-induced wildfires, hurricanes, extreme temperatures are all part of the predicted pattern that we must adapt to as climate change progresses.

We know these things. These are the big drivers that will take a while to turn around. In the meantime, there are local contributors to these fires that we should be mindful of if we are to adapt to emerging realities.

Chief suspect here: urban sprawl.


Comparing the three cities adjacent to these fires reveals some disturbing facts. In the space of a week, three Colorado communities that are all directly nestled at the base of Front Range foothills saw their foothill forests go up in flames. The data so far:

Acres burned
Lives lost
Homes lost
Homes lost per thousand acres
Colorado Springs/Waldo Canyon
Boulder/Flagstaff Mtn.
Ft. Collins/High Park
* as of June 30, 2012

Of the three cities, Colorado Springs has clearly suffered the worst. Two lives lost. The most homes lost. Colorado Springs saw substantial losses in suburban subdivisions that were allowed in the foothills within city limits—and were connected to municipal services including water and sewer.

The fire in Ft. Collins covered four times as much area as the Colorado Springs fire. Less homes than Colorado Springs were lost total, and far less per 1000 acres. No dense suburban subdivisions connected to municipal utilities (water & sewer) were impacted. One soul lost his life.

The fire in Boulder happened in a forested foothills area only 2-3 miles from downtown. No homes or lives were lost.

Lots of factors influence the loss of property, the nature and extent of the fires, lives lost, and so forth. This is not a criticism of firefighters, people’s lifestyles, economic paradigms, or political perspectives. The above data are just the beginning of a full conversation.

However, the three cities certainly saw different outcomes, for different reasons. For instance, allowing high density housing in fire prone areas means there is a higher risk of significant impacts. Empirical studies and common sense confirm this.

We have learned this before. On the heals of the giant Hayman fire ten years ago, home growth slowed in Colorado forests, only to pickup anew in the last few years.  The years right after the Hayman fire would have been a good time to codify preventative measures into growth laws. Didn’t happen.

Boulder in the 1950s approved a “Blue Line;” an altitude above which the City would NOT provide water and sewer.  Along with a 35 acre per single-family home zoning density approved by Boulder County and among the nation’s most aggressive open space land preservation efforts, rural growth around Boulder is effectively frozen.

Notwithstanding the leapfrog development, gentrification, and other negative consequences of Boulder’s smart growth policies that are real, smart growth has mostly paid off for Boulder in many ways—lately in fire protection. This week, Boulder’s newspaper reported:

“Like many south Boulder residents, Tom Duncan said he's always known his house was in danger if a fire developed on the open space. At the same time, Duncan, who lives on View Point Road, near the Cragmoor Hardscrabble Trail, said the open space makes him feel safer. The city has a well-managed buffer between the mountains and homes.

"The Colorado Springs fire has made us more sensitive to what could happen, but I think we have different terrain," he said. "This is another value of all those dollars we've spent on open space."

Boulder spokeswoman Sarah Huntley said she doesn't want to give residents a false sense of security. Strong winds in the wrong direction could still change the course of the fire.

Colorado Springs, on the other hand, has become the 71st most sprawled city in the US—and its rapid expansion of urban services into outlying areas overextended city coffers and helped cause terrible economic impacts during the Great Recession that even impacted the City's ability to fight the fires. And now the Springs’ sprawl is on fire.

Ft. Collins in Larimer County has not implemented what some would call the “draconian” anti-growth policies seen in neighboring Boulder County—but found a happy median instead. Larimer County has a great open space program. Ft. Collins has largely made the key decision not to extend water and sewer up the hill, although exceptions can be made.  On the other hand, sprawl along the I-25 corridor in Larimer County has been profound. But they have largely kept sprawl out of the foothills where climate change propelled fire waits to incinerate sprawl.

In the aftermath of Ft. Collins’ massive fire, our sustainability colleague at Colorado State University has challenged us and her community to rebuild a sustainable future. CSU sustainability engineer Carol Dollard wrote on the GreenSchools listserv in late June:

“There is an effort afoot to help folks get the resources to rebuild sustainably.  I encourage you to tie in with those efforts if you want to help us out here on the front line.”

The NoCo Rebuilding Network site is:


What are the lessons for campus sustainability? Well, water conservation, long taking a back seat to energy conservation, should become much more profound on the nation’s campuses—especially here in the arid west.

Likewise, campuses have lots of intellectual, practical, and fiscal resources that can help leverage sustainable rebuilding efforts in their local communities. From volunteers working on Habitat homes to faculty planning, construction, and energy experts helping their local communities, campuses have lots of assets that can help.

Finally, residential campuses can model sustainable development themselves by providing as much on-campus housing for students, faculty and staff as possible. This helps build a strong campus community—and retard sprawl of student housing that puts pressure on a community and pushes single-family development further from town centers. And campuses that can provide housing for their lowest income workers model the best of sustainability’s promise to mitigate inequitable impacts on those least among us. And you get STARS points too…


Back in the day, Nature invoked fire to cleanse itself of flotsam and jetsam. We know fire is a natural and even highly desirable part of normal ecosystem management. That was Nature’s plan before climate change, before sprawl. These days, WE are the flotsam and jetsam. 

So, what’s wrong with this picture? Nature is not going to adapt to us; we need to adapt to Nature’s need for fire, keep the sprawl out of her way, or pay the price. The poor souls in Colorado Springs in those sprawl subdivisions simply should not have been put in Nature’s way. It’s not her fault, it’s ours.

Climate change is the new normal. Adapting to climate change will be hard enough. Having to protect high-risk sprawl communities also will add to our fiscal, emotional, and political burden.

As we look to rebuild, let’s focus on rebuilding to sustainability standards, not sprawl standards. In the climate adaption world a new equation is true:  Sprawl + climate change = toast.

Hat’s off again to the men and women firefighters on the front lines of the fires—and of climate change.  We are still awed by our sustainability colleagues who are giving it all every day.

Think of our friends. Pray for rain. Stay cool. 


-photos from the Denver Post


  1. As a previous resident of central California, I have been evacuated twice from my home while I watched my neighbor’s homes burn - I feel great sympathy for all of the affected residents.
    Thank you Dave for bringing this issue to our attention and for connecting the dots (if we needed additional evidence!).
    In the fall of 1973, an architectural instructor at a community college (we called them junior colleges then) included a section on appropriate ecological design in his introductory class. He assigned the book “Design With Nature” by Ian McHarg. Published in 1969, McHarg argued that many communities were not in tune with the local soils types, vegetation and hydrology and that natural disasters were going to be more frequent and intense. McHarg also argued for a thorough analysis of other factors which would not only minimize potential problems, but would also create dynamic communities which would enhance the lives of residents in areas not normally associated with the environment.
    Although Mr. McHarg’s methods were not generally incorporated by design professionals and city-planners, the class and assignment impacted my career path permanently. In the aftermath of this and many other disasters, I am thankful to the forward-thinking instructor (I don’t even remember his name) who broadened his class a bit to make connections to community and the environment – we call it sustainability now.

  2. A significant number of higher education institutions are growing through satellite buildings, "campuses" under one roof, and research parks that are driving urban sprawl. It might be commercial sprawl, but that often leads to the opportunity for residential sprawl once the service lines (water, sewer, electric, etc) are extended.

    In my community we have one state institution that is a leader for infill development, brownfield redevelopment, and building re-use around a main campus. And we have a second state institution that grows by buying farmland on the main entry roads. Their latest building (rejected by a planning board but overridden by elected officials) needed almost a mile extension of the city boundary and services down a frontage road. They recently won a voter referendum explicitly for the purchase of more "undeveloped" land (= farms). It is interesting to me that the different development patterns of these two entities are not discussed in the community; if anything, the institution with the sprawling objective is seen as better responding to the community needs (e.g. they have "free" spacious parking lots!).

  3. Carol Dollard - Rist Canyon resident & FFJuly 3, 2012 at 5:26 PM

    Finally, after nearly three weeks, the residents of our community were allowed to go back to their homes last Thursday. As that event was happening I was reminded why I have always said that we moved out of the city nearly 30 years ago because we found a place that had a real sense of community. As the residents drove back in, everyone - even those whose homes we could not save - were honking, waving and stopping to hug the FFs that had been working to defend their homes and 100+ year old schoolhouse. Folks were watching out for each other (nearly 1 in 4 homes in our comunnity were destoyed by the fire).

    As I sat on my deck that night I remembered why I have chosen this for my home & cannot imagine living anywhere else. It isn't just the beauty of my mountain home, it is all the people like us who have called this place home for decades. A community isn't built of buildings - it is the people that make it a cherished place to live - no matter how battle scarred it is by the fire.

  4. God bless you and yours Carol. You remind us all that everything is about relationships, about people, and bettering the human condition. Thanks so much for all you do, every day, for all of us.

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