COLORADO SPRINGS — Colorado Springs is one of the nation's fastest-growing cities. With that, every year researchers are finding new people are living in areas at risk for wildfires. News5 takes a Deep Dive into what these areas look like and what's being done to keep them safe.
Colorado Springs alone has more than 100 neighborhoods inside the Wildland-Urban Interface otherwise known as areas full of vegetation and at major risk for wildfire.
News5 visited one of those neighborhoods near Ute Valley Park where fire prevention efforts have to happen every year. That includes educating people who are new to the neighborhood about the dangers and what can be done.
Nine years ago people in west-side neighborhoods in Colorado Springs scrambled to evacuate as the Waldo Canyon Fire burned the city's mountain backdrop, then raced down the hillside and onto city streets consuming more than 300 homes in its path.
"There's a lot of people moving here now that have no idea. They do not remember that. They were not a part of that. So they forget the delicate nature of this," said Christine Thomas who has lived in a neighborhood with wildfire risks for the last 30 years.
Thomas says lessons were learned from the Waldo Canyon Fire and the work to defend against those risks never ends.
"It takes a lot of energy and some input from neighbors to make a difference in the neighborhood and protect," said Thomas.
Experts at the Colorado Springs Fire Department said the city's Wildland-Urban Interface is the largest in the state covering 32,655 acres.
"Basically everything kind of from the Air Force Academy down to Cheyenne Mountain State Park is what we call our Wildland-Urban Interface. So those homes are at a greater risk for a fire happening just because they are essentially nestled in the trees," said Ashley Whitworth of the Colorado Springs Fire Department.
Fire department crews are currently working on fire mitigation efforts in 140 neighborhoods. News5 is told right now just 5% of this large fire-prone area is vacant and has not been built out.
"I know there are some attempts to build even more on smaller pieces of land and we only have one way out. We can't get out any other way," said Thomas.
According to the Colorado State Forest Service, the number of people in Colorado now living in areas with wildfire risk is on the rise. From 2012 t0 2017 the number increased by 50%. As of 2017, 2.9 million people were living in these areas.
"It is a challenge because we do have a lot of turnover with our military and people who are moving out of state. So, it's a constant battle to educate everybody and to let them know what their risk is," said Whitworth.
The fire department's Neighborhood Chipping Program is one example of the work being done to eliminate some of the debris that could serve as fuel for a fire. Residents can sign up for free disposal of tree branches and hazardous vegetation and last year crews removed a record 624 tons of material.
Firefighters say it was these kinds of efforts that helped to save homes threatened by the Bear Creek fire that burned on the westside of Colorado Springs back in November of last year.
"We want them to have that stand-alone survivability of their house in the event of a wildfire, so we can put our resources where they really need to go," said Whitworth.
Thomas hopes her neighborhood will be ready.
"It's vital because it's going to happen again. It's not a question of if. It's when," said Thomas.
There are many resources available to help property owners understand the wildfire risk they face and to get help in addressing that risk.