Community Wildfire Planning Center (CWPC) released an updated version of its report Land Use Planning Approaches in the Wildland-Urban Interface – An analysis of four western states: California, Colorado, Montana, and Washington. First published in February 2021, the report reviews how each state’s land use planning frameworks address the wildland-urban interface (WUI) through state or local requirements. The report also highlights trends and long-term wildfire risk drivers that may influence the WUI and proposes five broad solutions to help advance land use planning as a mechanism to reduce wildfire losses in the future.

Our updated report (August 2021) includes an addendum, Colorado County Master Plans and Wildfire Policies, to investigate a research question identified in the main report. Current Colorado state statutes require counties and municipalities to adopt a master plan (also referred to as a comprehensive plan or general plan). As a practice, master planning sets the stage for broad, forward-thinking land use planning that can guide and direct future growth, prioritize goals and outcomes, and keep communities safe and resilient. These decisions are critical to helping communities consider hazards alongside other important community decisions. For example, if a community anticipates population growth, master plans help communities guide growth to appropriate locations based on community-driven social, environmental, and economic goals. Communities that fail to consider topics such as hazards may inadvertently put homes and lives at risk to local hazards.

In Colorado, the master plan is considered an advisory document to guide land development decisions, however, the plan or any part thereof may be made binding by inclusion in the county’s or region’s adopted subdivision, zoning, platting, planned unit development, or other similar land development regulations. Municipalities in Colorado must address the location of areas containing steep slopes, geological hazards, wildfire hazards, flood risk zones, and land use topics in their master plans, however, counties may address these same hazard and land use topics (Colorado Revised Statutes [C.R.S.] § 30-28-106; § 31-23-206). In other words, counties in Colorado are not required to include natural hazards in their master plans.

With growing wildfire concern and population growth projected across the state, CWPC wanted to know: how many counties in Colorado with WUI risk have meaningfully addressed wildfire in their master plan? We wanted to better understand if counties were effectively planning for wildfire in their master plans, despite not being required to do so, or if there are gaps in the process.

We reviewed all 64 counties in Colorado to determine if they have a current master plan available (published online), and the extent of information or policies included in the master plan related to wildfire risk, planning, or mitigation for existing or future development. We also used the Colorado WUI Risk Index tool (provided through the Colorado State Forest Service Colorado Forest Atlas) to determine the percentage of each county’s residents that live in the WUI with a moderate WUI risk or higher. We looked at the relationship between counties with moderate or higher WUI risk and the level of consideration for wildfire in their master plan.

We found that more than one-fifth of Colorado counties that have more than 20% of their county residents living in the WUI with moderate or higher risk either have no master plan available or have no wildfire policies in their current master plan. An additional 14% of counties with more than 20% of their county residents living in the WUI with moderate or higher risk have only a limited number of policies that factor wildfire into their master plans. Perhaps most notably, less than one-third of the counties in the state with more than 20% of their county residents living in the WUI with moderate or higher risk have meaningfully incorporated wildfire into their master plans–of those county master plans, some were over ten years old. Read the full analysis and findings of CWPC’s report here (see addendum Colorado County Master Plans and Wildfire Policies).

Counties were assessed to determine the extent of moderate or above WUI risk. This information was paired with each county master plan to see the relationship, if any, between moderate or higher WUI risk and the extent to which wildfire was considered in their master plan .

Our analysis confirms that there are multiple examples of counties in Colorado that have a WUI risk but have not addressed this risk in a meaningful way in their master plan. To compound this issue, another recent analysis conducted by The Gazette found that some of the most vulnerable areas of the state also rely on some of the state’s oldest community wildfire protection plans (CWPPs). The Colorado State Forest Service recommends that CWPPs are updated at least every five years but there is no requirement.

Addressing these gaps may require a legislative fix to mandate that counties include wildfire hazard in their master plan (similar to municipalities). Additional resources are available to support such planning activities, including the Colorado State Forest Atlas, which can provide counties with information to understand their wildfire risk and inform appropriate development decisions. However, CWPC’s broad planning experience also indicates that technical assistance and additional capacity is a necessary ingredient to support counties in updating their master plans to include wildfire in a manner that reflects local risk and appropriate planning strategies. Additional WUI planning resources offered by CWPC are available here.