"Smart Growth" and "New Urbanism" Compared with "Large Lot Zoning" (Tom Lane) [ Home Page – Click Here]

(May 17, 2017) – Traditional "Large Lot Zoning" is "Greener" than "Smart Growth" within Urban Growth Boundaries . . . Copyright 2009 – 2017 . . . Tom Lane . . . Photographing California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington.

(UPDATED) ASHLAND, BOULDER, FLAGSTAFF FIRES: Wake Up Call to Thin Brush on Urban Grown Boundaries: Boulder, Bend, Flagstaff, Ashland: Photo Essay

Above: Young Ponderosa Pine monoculture in need of thinning in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Summer 2010 has taught us a lot about wildfires starting on, and beyond, urban growth boundaries, a smart growth principle.


(Updated Dec. 10, 2010).  Recently, a homeless individual was let go in Jackson County, Oregon, despite starting a grass fire on with tobacco products, near or on a tall grassy urban growth boundary that destroyed 11 homes.  This was the worst fire in Ashland in 100 years.

In a situation like this, the land use planner asks if any factors inherent to land use planning may have contributed to the fire.  I have consistently pointed out that Urban Growth Boundaries (UGB’s) are major fire hazards.  They are frequently not kept free of tall grass, brush, and choked Ponderosa Pines.

Boulder, Colorado also faces a tall grass issue, as shown below with tall grass on the UGB.  They waited to the last minute before mowing the grass. The fire started in dead and dying Ponderosa Pines that should have been logged decades ago.

Flagstaff, Arizona had a severe fire in June, 2010, followed by massive flooding during the summer monsoons.  Again, the Ponderosa Pines that should have been logged decades ago.  Although Flagstaff does not have an urban growth boundary in the classic sense (i.e. Boulder and Ashland), the public is opposed to proper forest thinning and management.

Since peripheral lands around mountain communities consistently go up in smoke, we must develop better tools for these “superstar” towns in islands of pristine fire prone wilderness.

And, we will, because Ashland, Boulder, and Flagstaff have provided the wake up call for 2010.  The property damage is horrible, and provides the impetus to developing new strategies for those living on islands in the  wilderness.

And, economic and emotional damage will persist for years, along with many years of seasonal flooding in the mountains in Flagstaff and Boulder, due to melting snows, summer monsoons, and the destruction of the vegetation buffer.

The Risk of Mountain Living

Isolated mountain towns have always faced wildfire risks of several hundred times any other “type” of town.  However, several factors may have increased the severity of the recent fires in 2010, and recent ones in Los Alamos, Lake Tahoe, Bend, Leavenworth (Wa.), and elsewhere.

First, the Boulder and Flagstaff fires occurred in Ponderosa Pine savannas with grass understory.  Under normal circumstances, frequent ground fires (from lightning) clear the excess brush and grass, along with baby trees.  However, with fire suppression, the baby trees grow up compete with the older trees, and eventually die due to lack of light and water, creating a tinderbox of deceased trees, with dead branches touching the dry grass.

A cigarette or campfire can light the dead grass on fire, catching the dead juvenile trees on fire, catching the mature Ponderosas on fire.  And, the rest is history, as green trees explode in crown fires, spreading from one tree to the next.  This article by Dr. Bill Wattenburg, and my own photos below, show photos of overgrown and thinned forests.

Second, in Ashland and other areas with summer drought (Mediterranean climates), scattered areas of tall dead grass in the summer readily catch on fire.  Again, under natural circumstances, these areas used to burn naturally (perhaps by lightning), or by controlled burns from Native Americans.

However, we nature lovers along the coast from Eugene, Oregon through Ashland to L.A. enjoy our backyards of tall brown grass, and watch the dragonflies, hummingbirds, and butterflies fly over their fields of weeds.

Sorry to say, unkempt brush is great for wildlife but very dangerous.  Seriously, these four fires in four of my favorite places raise questions about the safety of urban growth boundaries and exclusive zoning for agricultural or forest use.  Basically, did wildland conservation policies play any role in the severity of the fires?  If so, how can we prevent this around smart growth cities next year?

First, I do not know if these particular fires occurred on City limits, outside of UGB’s, on private property, national forest land (USFS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, state lands, etc.

However, we do know that the Ashland fire was in city limits, and started outside the UGB on County land.

However, from personal observations, I have seen horribly choked and overgrown forests of Ponderosa Pines that make me sick to my stomach.  The Flagstaff photo in the header image is the worst example.  Yes, those trees are alive.  I have additional similar photos, over the past 10 years of traveling all over the West.

Therefore, what I offer here, for fire prevention for Smart Growth mountain towns, are general guidelines for any city with containment of growth due to artificial and/or geographical constraints.

Suggestions for Mountain Towns

I am not a forest fire ecologist … this is just basic common sense blog posts to motivate concerned readers living that they can make a difference … Your best bet is your local forest service office, or your community college of Forestry, i.e. Central Oregon Community College in Bend, Oregon.

1. If the compact, high density smart growth city is surrounded by land on USFS or BLM land, perhaps by an Urban Growth boundary, then the City should work with the appropriate agencies to thin the forests of juvenile Ponderosa Pines, and create a fire road between the City limits and the forest, around the entire City.

2. If the compact city has large areas of mature Ponderosa Pines within the city limits, perhaps on areas zoned for large lot sizes, thin those areas.

3. If the compact city has areas of tall grass or agricultural area, due to large lot sizes, or smart growth policies of preserving agricultural land, work with landowners to ensure that they are mowing the fields.   Ashland Mayor John Stromberg is working with Jackson County to require residents of Jackson County to mow their grass.

Fires near Ashland normally affect the forests west of town.  This grass fire was as wake up call to the risk of catastrophic brush fires.  Below, I’ve posted photos of signs in Ashland’s Lithia Park for the City’s fire evacuation route for their forested areas.

Another example is the Kent Valley near Seattle, there’s land preserved for agriculture, under the growth management act.  There are several abandoned plant nurseries, with unkempt brush, trees, and grass.  They would catch on fire with a cigarette thrown out the window, during that area’s Mediterranean summer drought.

4. For all scenarios, recognize the demographics of who is moving to these small towns to retire: the Ashlands, Flagstaffs, Bends, Durangos, Mammoth Lakes, and Boulders — retiring baby boomers who love nature (as I discuss in this other post).  These formerly white collar baby boomer engineers and teachers have lots of money to buy large properties on large lots, but have no concept of fire prevention, and little energy to buy chain saws and clear and log 5 acre parcels.  Establish education programs in the Senior Centers on proper forest thinning and brush clearing, for these rural and exurban counties.

5. Public opposition to thinning and logging, especially from baby boomers, can stop forest thinning projects.  According to USDA Geographers John Cromartie and Peter Nelson, the non-metro population of baby boomers (ages 55-75) will increase by 30% between 2010 and 2020. As they retire and tellecommute in their elder years, they are migrating away from high density, Smart Growth inspired neighborhoods, and towards areas with natural amenities and cheap housing.

As Cromartie and Nelson emphasize, migration into metro counties was a gain of 970,000 during the 1990’s. This will reverse to a loss from metro to nonmetro counties of 650,000 during the 2010’s!  The rural and small town population of 55-75 year olds will increase from 8.6 million in 2000, to 14.2 million in 2020.

Baby boomers show a stronger desire to move from metro to nonmetro counties, compared to younger and older individuals.  These environmentally conscious baby boomers in search of nature will oppose thinning, logging, controlled burns, and other fire prevention measures.

Therefore, the best approach is education,with videos of historical fires near resort towns.  Education isn’t hard, when you show the aftermath of thinning and controlled burns, with wildflowers, birds, and butterflies.  And, everyone enjoys open vistas through the thinned understory.

Below, more photos of Flagstaff, Ashland, Vail, Frisco, and South Lake Tahoe, as noted in their captions. I will continue to add more photos as I find them in my files:

Under construction – I never added the Ashland oregon photos those are forthcoming and much below needs to be deleted.




THE PROBLEM: Dry hot summers with native oak, chaparal, and dry grass. These are hills west of town, within the “traditional evacuation route.”

Highly valued second homes, retirement properties, and tourist amenities adjacent to combustible, unthinned material on the Urban Growth Boundary.

These signs are meaningless, and do not address the cause of wildfire hazards in mountain retreats.

Some of these chaparral plants, such as Kinnickinick, are designed to burn to the ground and re-sprount after fire. With fire suppression, this create a problem.

It’s been a dreadful summer watching massive wildfires burning near four delightful Smart Growth mountain towns:  Boulder (CO), Flagstaff (AZ), Bend (OR), and Ashland (OR).

While the Rocky Mountains just west of Boulder continue to burn as of this writing (September 9, 2010), fires are as far as I know out in Flagstaff, Bend, and Ashland.  Continuous updates to the Boulder fire are presented here.  A map of the fire’s progression in the Four Mile Canyon area as of September 7, 2010 (PDF Map): Four_Mile_Fire_Web_Perimeter_Sept72010(Replaced by the updated map for Sept. 11 above.)

UPDATE, September 12, 2010, 1am:  The Boulder Fire Evacuation Boundary is not on the Urban Growth Boundary to the west of town, and fortunately never was.  Everywhere West of Boulder, north of Boulder Canyon, East of the Peak to Peak Highway, and South of Lefthand Canyon is still under evacuation.  This area includes both BLM, USFS, and private land.  6,000+ acres burned, and nearly 200 structures gone.

Current information about the fire, now 60% contained:

Boulder County Dept. of Emergency Management:  http://www.boulderoem.org/emergency-status

Boulder County Newsroom:  http://www.bouldercounty.org/newsroom/templates/bocodefault.aspx?articleid=2311&zoneid=1

Map of Evacuation Area and Burned Area Perimeter: http://www.bouldercounty.org/bocc/FourMileFireWebPerimeter.pdf

Inciweb Interagency Map and Forest Fuel Information:  http://www.inciweb.org/incident/2119/

Newsradio 850 KOA, Denver/Boulder, covering 40 states at night on the skywave, or on-line at http://850koa.com.

Here is the earlier September 8, 2010 Map: http://www.bouldercounty.org/bocc/FourMileFireWebPerimeter.pdf

The canyons west of Boulder are very steep, with Ponderosa Pines and dead brown grass.  I’ve visited there, and doubt the area has been properly thinned and maintained, as the properties looked seedy with meth problems.  Due to public opposition, residents would not want to see logging in the Boulder mountains.

See below for why Urban Growth Boundaries must be maintained, to prevent fires in small towns, whose residents restrict the harvesting of natural resources.

Flagstaff, Arizona. Succession as grassland turns to shrubs and Ponderosa Pines. As one enters the pine forest, some of the younger trees could be thinned.

Domestic sheep grazing near Flagstaff under Ponderosa Pines, helping to clear the understory of grass.

The Sheep and their Sheep Dog are the heros, saving all the new arrival baby boomer retirees!

Looking south over southern Ashland, Oregon. Normally, the forest fires are in the trees west of town. However, in summer 2010, a transient started a massive grass fire in dead brown grass in the valley.

Ashland, Oregon Lithia Park Fire Evaculation Route for Residents in the hills.

Ashland: Perhaps they do not want brush dumped in Lithia Park, as a cigarette could catch it on fire, although I’m sure they ban smoking with hefty fines.

The City of South Lake Tahoe, southern entrance, and Ponderosa Pines.

South Lake Tahoe road near residential area with large lots (and, retired baby boomers). Large Ponderosas are widely spaced, and not cluttered with young Ponderosa Pines.

999 Lakeshore, safe from fire? Maybe not. Might have to jump in the lake. Lake Tahoe has suffered many catastrophic fires over the years.

A properly thinned neighborhood on the easternmost street of Flagstaff (see the red baracades). However, what happens to the east? Has the forest been thinned beyond the barracades? Is there a fire road around the entire city limits? Considering the fires in the West in 2010, these are questions to address for Smart Growth cities over this winter.

Lodgepole Pines dying from bugs in the Colorado Ski Resort Town of Vail, photo from I-70 looking south.

Dead Lodgepole Pines along I-70 with the Dillon Resorvoir and the ski town of Frisco, Colorado in the background.

Shore of Dillon Resivoir near Frisco. The LIGHT green on the mountain slops are Quaking Aspen, that turn gold in the fall.

Pursuant to my main post on fires in Mountain Towns with Urban Growth Boundaries, the Boulder Daily Camera (newspaper) has just released the photo below of Boulder Officials cutting dead brown grass on the urban growth boundary – at the last minute. See more photos of the urban growth boundary below. Photo Credit from the Boulder Daily Camera, September 8, 2010: http://www.dailycamera.com/portlet/article/html/imageDisplay.jsp?contentItemRelationshipId=3282334

This wooden fence, as I recall, separates high density Smart Growth from the urban growth boundary, and tall grassy fields that extend up to Ponderosa Pines and Douglas in the Front Range. Many of these Douglas Firs have died due to beetles, as Inciweb reports, contributing to the severity of the Boulder fire.

As discussed in my main post, the Ashland, Oregon fire a few weeks ago started in tall dead brown grass on the urban growth boundary. While Ashland requires grass to be cut at a few inches, surrounding Jackson County does not. The Ashland mayor is talking with Jackson County Officials about this.


I am very sorry to report this. Those of us with understanding of fire ecology have a lot of work to do to help these communities with Smart Growth and Urban Growth Boundaries avoid future catastrophic fires. The “leave it alone, let it grow” approach directed on urban growth boundaries is well-intentioned in terms of preserving views of natural amenities, yet is not safe for rural property owners.

Here are additional photos, submitted by readers to the Denver Post blogs. I selected a few examples of fire hazards on the Boulder urban growth boundary and dead trees in the foothills. See captions for comments and appropriate photo credits.

First, click here for The Denver Post’s 17 photos of a 27 year old Boulderite, as he returns to his burned home in the Boulder foothills. The devastation is beyond belief, and he can’t find his three cats. Here’s what remains of his house:

27 Year old Boulderite cannot find his three cats. From The Denver Post, Sept. 11, 2010: http://tiny.cc/wviin


Water dropping helicopters flies over grass cutting on the Urban Growth Boundary in NW Boulder. From: The Boulder Daily Camera, Sept. 9, 2010: http://tiny.cc/aahkb

Tall grass and weeds in North Boulder near the urban growth boundary. From Denver Post, same link as above.

Too little, too late, from these firefighters. The baby boomers retire in places like Boulder in record numbers, yet we need to educate them on cutting brush. From: The Boulder Daily Camera, Sept. 10, 2010: http://tiny.cc/c479x


Worst case scenario when retired baby boomers’ home is destroyed, due to hot exploding crown fires burning entire trees. From the Denver Post, Sept. 10, 2010: http://photos.denverpost.com/mediacenter/2010/09/boulder-wildfire-day-5/#16

Crown fires occur in old, dying trees and/or green trees surrounded by dead/dying trees. This is totally preventable, if the dead and dying trees are logged. Baby boomer migrants to rural America are understandably opposed to forest management, thinning, and logging, as they move to areas such as Boulder for natural amenities. From: The Boulder Daily Camera, Sept. 10, 2010. http://tiny.cc/689c0


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