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As the new year approached, Coloradans watched the unfolding of a type of tragedy they aren’t used to seeing: a wildfire tear through miles and miles of suburban homes not far from the middle of the Denver metro area.

Record-setting blazes in Colorado keep coming, and rural areas aren’t the only ones that need to prepare for fires, said Eric Hurst, a spokesperson for South Metro Fire Rescue.

“Just because you don’t live next to the foothills doesn’t mean there’s not a risk of wildfire in your community,” Hurst said.

The Marshall fire in Boulder County destroyed 1,084 homes and damaged another 149, The Colorado Sun reported. The Dec. 30 fire put tens of thousands of people under evacuation orders and led to one confirmed death and another person still missing as of Jan. 7.

Flames raced across roughly 6,000 acres — about 9 square miles — leaving a large stretch of the suburbs between Denver and Boulder devastated.

On the other side of Denver, for decades, South Metro Fire Rescue has had its eye on wildfires that can threaten suburban areas. Fire officials use the term “wildland urban interface” to refer to areas where structures and other human development meet or intermingle with undeveloped wildland or plant life that can fuel fires.

“Especially since the late 1990s and early 2000s, South Metro Fire began really focusing on risk of wildland interface fires,” Hurst said. He added: “We’ve had a lot of close calls in our jurisdiction.”

‘A high threat’

In Centennial, those close calls can be “greenbelt” fires involving open space and parks, Hurst said. Many Centennial neighborhoods are divided from each other by spaces with vegetation, such as grass or other plants.

When people light fireworks in those types of spaces or start recreational campfires, it’s not uncommon for authorities to see fires occur, according to Hurst.

But wildfire is more of a threat in parts of Douglas and Jefferson counties, where South Metro Fire also has jurisdiction. The “fuels” for a fire are different in Douglas County, for example, where firefighters see oak brush and ponderosa pine trees and the landscape tends to be more rolling, Hurst said.

The Castle Pines area evacuated in 2003 during the Cherokee Ranch fire that burned about 1,200 acres and threatened houses in the Castle Pines North area. More recently, the Chatridge 2 fire near Highlands Ranch spread to 500 acres and forced an evacuation of nearby residents in 2020.

Wildfires in general are becoming more intense, virtually by the year: All 20 of the 20 largest wildfires in Colorado have occurred since 2001, according to the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control’s website. Nine of the top 20 have occurred within the last handful of years — in 2018 and 2020 — and that includes four of the top five.

The Marshall fire, which spread amid fierce winds and dry conditions, was Colorado’s most destructive wildfire in terms of the number of homes destroyed, the Sun reported. The 2013 Black Forest fire north of Colorado Springs was previously the most destructive wildfire in Colorado. That fire destroyed 489 homes, the Sun reported.

“Overall, the trend seems to be telling us that it’s drier and we’re having bigger fires,” Hurst said.

If a home borders or sits with a mile or two of a natural area, it’s at risk of damage from a wildfire, according to a wildfire safety guide prepared in part by the Colorado State Fire Chiefs Association. The type of “wildland interface” may look different from area to area, Hurst said. In Centennial and unincorporated Arapahoe County, neighborhoods can back up to Cherry Creek State Park, for example.

“The interface areas aren’t necessarily created equally in their (fire) fuel model, but the prairie (and) plains areas are at a high threat as well,” Hurst said.

What’s important to remember is that it’s difficult to have a big fire in South Metro Fire’s area without it impacting homes or communities in some way, Hurst said.

“When we have a fire grow over an acre, we immediately have concerns that neighborhoods are going to be threatened,” Hurst added.

Risk reduction for homes

South Metro Fire Rescue helped fight the Marshall fire, deploying seven engines, three fire chiefs and a safety officer on the first day. On day 2, the agency replenished the aid with five engines and a fire chief. 

Out of the spotlight, though, the fire agency works to increase fire safety before tragedies happen, employing a team of risk-reduction specialists.

“For decades, risk-reduction specialists have been working with homeowners’ associations and local homeowners on fire preparedness,” Hurst said.

The team provides wildfire assessments and helps communities create defensible areas around their neighborhoods and around their homes. Defensible space is the zone between a structure and the wildland area that can act as a buffer to slow or halt the spread of a wildfire to the structure, according to the fire safety guide.

If a fire like the Marshall fire happens in the south metro area, that might help save some property, Hurst said.

The public can email reducingrisk@southmetro.org with questions about fire preparedness.

South Metro Fire Rescue’s coverage area includes all or part of 12 municipalities: Aurora, Bow Mar, Castle Pines, Centennial, Cherry Hills Village, Columbine Valley, Foxfield, Greenwood Village, Lakewood, Littleton, Lone Tree and Parker. South Metro Fire also covers unincorporated portions of Arapahoe, Jefferson and Douglas counties.

Reporter Jessica Gibbs contributed to this story.