"It is a horrific moment when you realize that the worst case scenario, the thing you had been theoretically preparing for, is actually happening." Dave Lasky shares six lessons learned regarding the catastrophic Four Mile Canyon Fire. (Photo: satellite image of the Four Mile Canyon Fire perimeter. Green and black indicate burned areas. White spots are destroyed homes. Credit: DigitalGlobe)

Fantastic Failure: False Hope and the Four Mile Canyon Fire

By: Dave Lasky

Topic: Communications / Outreach Fuels treatment / Prescribed fire Wildfire

Type: Fantastic Failure

On the morning of Septemb­­er 2, 2010, the Four Mile Canyon Fire ignited in the Rocky Mountain Foothills, just west of Boulder, Colorado. Eighteen hours later, 168 homes were destroyed, and over 6,000 acres had burned. For me, what started as a smoke report from a neighboring fire protection district finished as the most traumatic experience of my professional career. I watched the fire destroy seven of my neighbors’ homes and fought the fire from my own front deck. It is a horrific moment when you realize that the worst case scenario, the thing you had been theoretically preparing for, is actually happening. Despite having fought fire across the West, I was emotionally unprepared to help my wife evacuate our dogs, cat and horses while also defending my friends’ and neighbors’ homes.

wildfire smoke plume

The Four Mile Canyon Fire two hours after ignition, seen behind a 1989 fire scar. Credit: Sugarloaf Fire Protection District

A few months earlier, I stepped down as the fire and fuels crew boss for the Four Mile Fire Protection District. During the five years that I worked in that position, I passionately advanced fire mitigation. As a matter of fact, the crew treated over 600 acres within what is now the Four Mile Canyon Fire perimeter. From grant writing to community organizing to feeding branches though the chipper, we had become deeply acquainted with what is now a burned landscape and the people who called it home.

The Four Mile Canyon Fire is now less remembered in the wake of the devastating High Park, Waldo Canyon, and Black Forest Fires. But at the time, it was the most destructive fire that Colorado had experienced in 20 years. As such, Senator Mark Udall commissioned a report to determine if fuels treatments had meaningfully prevented structure loss. Hundreds of thousands of dollars, both public and private, were spent within the fire perimeter, before the fire, on mitigation. Excellent researchers, such as Dr. Jack Cohen, were involved in the research. A brief executive summary of the report was published (PDF, 176 KB), in addition to the full report (23.8 MB).

To save you from having to read the reports, the short answer to Senator Udall’s question was no. Years of work did not significantly prevent structure loss. Of course, there were massive, systemic issues that contributed more significantly to this failure than a wildfire mitigation crew with chainsaws. But professionally, the report left me feeling about 2 inches tall. It was hard not to feel like we had failed and our failure was incredibly public, no less. We failed our neighbors that had spent significant money to “prevent the loss” of their homes. We failed the families that had put their trust in us. I would risk being called arrogant if I took too much of the blame, but the reality was that homes we had worked around had burned to the ground, in a few cases, with pets still inside.

So what did we learn?

Doing something is not better than doing nothing.

When the mitigation crew approached residents in the past, they often said, “I didn’t move up here to see my neighbors. I don’t want to cut trees.” In an effort to build momentum, we often performed work that we knew was not reflective of the best science, cutting fewer trees than we should have. This practice was in regard to both defensible space as well as shaded fuel-break projects. The hope was that as communities adjusted to the cosmetic changes, we’d be able to reenter and accomplish more.

I still hear many colleagues say “let’s just get something done.” I believe this is wrong. We need to do it right or not do it at all. Half measures are proven to fail and engaging in them has great reputational costs. In the current climate of high-profile, catastrophic fires, I am not interested in fear mongering. But I am interested in applying our limited resources to only those communities that are fully committed.

In the current climate of high-profile, catastrophic fires, I am not interested in fear mongering. But I am interested in applying our limited resources to only those communities that are fully committed.

It’s not just about cutting trees in the wildland-urban interface.

Fuels crews are run by firefighters. Perhaps they should be run by architects. In retrospect, we spent far too much money on fuels reduction and not enough on assisting residents with the installation of fire-resistant building materials and landscaping. Few of the homes lost were directly impacted by crown fire; rather, embers undoubtedly ignited the fine fuels around them, which eventually led to the loss of entire structures. In many instances, residents would have been better served by our crew putting a decorative stone perimeter around the structure. Many residents are capable of cleaning gutters, but less can move tons of gravel. We had chainsaws, and we knew how to use them. We should have picked up our shovels instead.

Mitigation is an ongoing process, not an event.

We completed a number of projects that involved clearing trees on both sides of existing roads. What we did not do is involve stakeholders, such as the County Transportation Department. We removed the trees, but knee-high grass grew in their absence. Needless to say, these fuel breaks did not hold. Had the grass been seasonally mowed, I believe they would have.

Mitigation is an ongoing process, not an event.

Treatments are not complete until prescribed fire is introduced.

This is a correlate to the “doing something partially” lesson. Cutting trees and building slash piles without verified funding and resources to promptly burn the piles is not mitigation. It is simply rearranging the fuels into a potentially more hazardous situation. In several areas, our crew’s piles were associated with complete stand mortality. We created ladders into the canopy. At best, these unburned piles represented a sad waste of money, and at worst, it is possible that if we hadn’t treated them, these stands might not have carried fire.

For several projects, we built neat pyramids of four-foot logs, with the hope that residents would collect the wood for firewood. This wood wasn’t removed, and instead, flaming logs rolled downhill, and in several cases jeopardized the safety of firefighters.

Transparent communication is not optional.

In retrospect, I think we could be fairly accused of unintentionally having oversold the effectiveness of fuels treatments. For obvious reasons, we didn’t want to dwell on the fact that even excellent mitigation isn’t a complete guarantee. I now use the metaphor that mitigation is like airbags in a car. Airbags can save lives, but if you drive your car into a telephone pole at 90 miles per hour, airbags won’t do much. In an era of climate change and commensurate extreme fire behavior, we have an ethical responsibility to be more forthcoming with residents about the limits of risk reduction.

Transparent communication is not optional.

Much of the work we did was effective, just not in the ways we had most prominently articulated. Evacuations were possible, and may not have been, had we not worked along roadway fuel breaks. (Not all of our roadway fuel breaks were repopulated by grasslands.) I believe this work contributed to the fact that none of the 3,000 evacuated residents were killed. Further, much of the area that we treated burned at a much lower intensity than the rest of the fire footprint saw, and the landscape experienced many positive ecological effects.

Communities are resilient.
Dave using a drip torch to ignite a grassland

Dave now works as the module lead at the Gravitas Peak Wildland Fire Module. Photo credit: Mike Caggiano, Colorado State University

To end on a positive note, much good came from the fire. Many residents did rebuild, this time with fire-resistant materials and techniques. The Four Mile Fire Protection District was able to rebuild their fire station, which was lost during the fire. Boulder County responded with the creation of the nationally recognized Wildfire Partners program. The recent Cold Springs Fire went much differently than the Four Mile Canyon Fire did, from both a suppression and structure loss perspective. Much of this growth is attributable to the excellent work that hundreds of people have advanced in the wake of Colorado’s recent wildfire history. For me, I now cut fewer trees and am out of the “suppression game.” I have redirected my career to getting as much good fire on the ground as possible.

Editor’s notes:

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This story is part of FAC Net’s Fantastic Failures blog series, which is an avenue for community wildfire practitioners to productively share failures that others can learn from. Find out more about how you can participate.

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20 thoughts on “Fantastic Failure: False Hope and the Four Mile Canyon Fire”

  1. eytan says:

    Thanks for sharing this important story Dave!

  2. Matt Piccarello says:

    Great article Dave. You raise a lot of really important points here.

  3. Charlie Landsman says:

    Thanks for sharing! There are some great points in here that I will keep in mind when working with homeowners.

    From my experience, the “Let’s just get something done” approach can be effective if you also emphasize that mitigation is not a one time event. I work with a lot of residents who are new to Colorado. Even people that have lived here their whole lives have a skewed view of a “healthy” forest unless they are in the Forestry or Firefighting fields or have lived through a bad fire.

    It is difficult to sell a private landowner, who is unfamiliar with ecology, on removing, say 75% of the vegetation on their property. Instead, taking out 25% annually over three years can be easier for them to swallow. While the home might not be protected the first year, I think we need to remember that we are not going to reach all of our goals tomorrow and continual motion in the right direction is valuable even if under certain circumstances it does not pay off. Unfortunately, too often, mitigation is treated as an event and even if done correctly the first time, things grow back.

  4. Travis Flohr says:

    Great insight! I would only change one thing; I believe fuel crews would have the impact you are seeking if they were a consortium of planners, landscape architects, architects, developers, builders, and firefighters. This group would span the continuum of WUI development from conception through construction and management.

  5. Dan Holman says:

    Well written article. Would like to send this to all of our H.O.A. members. This describes our situation.
    Thank You, Dan Holman Flowery Trail Community Association.

  6. Terry Lawhead says:

    Very important story, thank you.

  7. Roy D Pike says:

    Great Article;
    I wish our Senators in my home state had the same interest as yours did, and perhaps all of the deaths and homes and billions of dollars may have been prevented after the first series of fires in the same areas occurred in 1964 after these fires. Instead, after a few articles and a whole lot of bloviating by the radical environmentalists that seem to multiply over night, we received more open space and a hands off approach to fuels management, not to even whisper prescribed fire . Then the Wine country fires occurred pushed by the predictable north winds of the Fall and the rest is history.
    Even the rush to clear away the rubble and re-build in the exact same property without any effort for fuels management. Guess what? Within the next 50 years the same thing will occur only there will be tons of more dead and dying brush and timber to add to the next $billion fiasco. And the 50 year cycle will start again. The firefighters will have earned Thousands of dollars in overtime, the building contractors will have earned $millions, the lumber companies twice that amount and the real estate offices will be able to line their floors and walls with hundred $ bills.

    Doing something that is wrong is truly not the answer. But then again, we will be wasting our time . Money talks in this state–not reason.

    Roy D. Pike, CDF Deputy Chief RET

  8. Will Harling says:

    Who knew you were a great writer in addition to being a swashbuckling fire cowboy! Great article, Dave!

  9. Very well said, Dave! I’ll definitely be sharing with our local fire districts, fire safe council and colleagues.

  10. Marie says:

    Thanks, a great article! I think your bullet “doing something is not better than doing nothing” is correct but not simple or absolute. Sometimes doing a little less than what needs to be done is the first step in gaining trust and bringing people together. A small project that does “something” is sometimes a necessary step to gain buy-in to do what needs to be done across a larger landscape. Of course it can be risky when doing less than needed results in failure when a fire occurs and the mitigation proves ineffective and we lose credibility that way as well!

    No easy answers I guess

  11. Great article Dave. Thanks for sharing these important reminders.

  12. Pam Wilson says:

    I’ve heard you tell parts of this story Dave but in writing about it you really brought the story full circle. Very nicely done!

  13. Paul Branson says:

    Wow! You nailed me to the wall. I really really appreciate you speaking these words and more importantly for keeping in the fight. I find this piece truly inspiring as it speaks candidly to those points that keep me (us) up at night.

    As a practitioner in this field I agree on your points yet still know we have to start somewhere to establish that base, build momentum, gain buy in… I think it’s more about solid informed work, heavy self critique and NOT settling or stopping at the intro efforts but doing evething we can to keep progressing.

    I have to think that if we hit this in true HRO fashion that we will eventually gain ground, save lives, save rivers, liveihood etc etc. Your points speak to that and again kudos to you for speaking the ‘Good/Bad/Ugly’ as I think it is critcal input to this endeavor and a great example of leadership.

    Honestly, when I self assess what we’ve done down here (which was a hell of a lot of the right stuff-Firewise groups, D-Space, Fuel Breaks, CWPPs, etc) I come up with the simple fact that we are still not ready. We are really no where near ready. We’re sitting ducks.

    Your essay (and other similar accounts) inspires me to tackle the next stage of tasks and keep on going. So what’s on the plate now? Our latest shift in approach focuses on: 1) Evac Readiness, 2) Pre-fire WUI Attack planning (dipsites, draftsites, safety zones etc) 3) Interagency training opps 4)landscape scale fuel breaks-esp prescribed fire, and 5) getting Insurance in the D-Space game. Would appreciate your feedback about that approach.

    I really appreciate your self critique and reengagement. Thanks again for getting that important knowledge out. To me its like the ‘good fire’ that is also changing our landscape. Go, Dog Go!

  14. Bob Kowalski says:

    As a wildfire risk manager in the insurance industry, I like the use of the airbag metaphor. Risk reduction is not risk elimination, and folks need to understand the difference. We can help them reduce, but never eliminate their wildfire risk. Great article!

  15. Rick Merrick says:

    Thanks Dave for sharing this info. I have gone through a fire in my community and can share some of the same stories. I also felt, am I doing any good??? I took the NFPA class in 2017, Home Ignition Zone. I feel that this class gave me more ways to help the land owners. When ever I have the chance to be on a land owners lots to talk about the firewise program, I also do a Home Ignition Zone inspection using the Assessment paperwork. Time will tell.

  16. Pam Leschak, National WUI Program Manager, USFS says:

    Great article Dave. Well written and, from my experience, hits the nail on the head. I fully agree with all your points. Mitigation is finite resources, we have to concentrate on doing what works, not just being busy. Mitigation is a challenge and the folks who do it seldom get much credit, but those folks are doing the work of changing the way we look at things and I firmly believe, if we keep at it, the bigger picture will change also …..

  17. Terry Heath says:

    Dave that is a great article and we need to see that it is seen For and Wide and share it with everyone .

  18. Thank you Dave – love this quote “In an era of climate change and commensurate extreme fire behavior, we have an ethical responsibility to be more forthcoming with residents about the limits of risk reduction.”

    I echo the need for being completely honest with homeowners about not just risk reduction, but also about the limitations and reality associated with suppression efforts.

  19. Alison Lerch says:

    Dave, you bring much light to wildfire mitigation and the future of fire. Thank you for sharing!

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