The first surprise I encountered as a very green carpenter coming to Santa Fe 35 years ago was that all the cubical brown buildings were not made of adobe.

Some were, and I was thoroughly enchanted when asked to help build or remodel one. It is such an ancient and intuitive way to build and so unlike the rest of North America. But everything else not built with adobe, the vast majority, was built like every other structure in the country.

Many who wash up onto our foothills from other lands encounter the same shocking reality. It’s faux adobe! It’s a “Fanta Se” adobe Disneyland! It’s architecturally redundant and boring!

It is also what might keep us from becoming the next Boulder County, Colo., as the drying West continues to burn.

Recent videos from Boulder were unlike any wildland fire ever witnessed. It wasn’t cabins in the mountains and tall forests. It wasn’t steep California grassland canyons. It was just 6,000 acres of flatland prairie surrounding single-family detached suburban neighborhoods.

The landscape looked like Eldorado or Las Campanas but built with the density of Tierra Contenta. News reports noted miles of grassland runways and sweeping walls of flames — inexorably pushed by 110 mph winds onto the hapless homes.

Grassland fires don’t throw embers the size of marbles for miles, as is common when timber fires leap from tree crown to tree crown. The roaring inferno simply bursts wood siding, wood decks and asphalt roof shingles into flames. The intense heat breaks windows, and flames swoosh in to light up homes like Roman candles.

Because the houses appeared built to code-minimum setbacks, like virtually every other subdivision in America, they likely were 10 feet apart. With that density, homes themselves act like crown fires leaping from one to another. The neighbor’s flaming home breaks the windows of the home next door and on and on until they are all gone.



Defensible space is a meaningless concept in tight subdivisions with paved roads, concrete sidewalks and driveways, and small yards with little landscaping.

It’s doubtful any building type could withstand that recent conflagration, but some types are more resilient, like what we build in Santa Fe.

Cement-based stucco is as fire-resistant as anything. Resistance is critical, which is why asbestos siding originally was considered the perfect material for the labs and houses of Los Alamos. Our flat roofs are not as resistant as pitched metal roofs, but it is no accident Northern New Mexicans adopted corrugated steel as soon as railroads made it cheap and available.

Ironically, that was about the same time Santa Fe’s first general plan of 1912 formalized Pueblo-style architecture as a means to promote tourism to America’s newest state. Apparently, once we proved our modernity and statehood was finally achieved, embracing our history was again considered legitimate.

Other modern building science principles and local building codes help make Santa Fe homes fire-resistant. Minimizing unnecessary penetrations in walls and foregoing plastic-domed skylights make a difference. Well-sealed draft-stops in framing, verified by thermal bypass inspections, while intended to maximize energy efficiency, are superb at retarding flame spread.

Unventilated roof assemblies mean no exterior vents to suck in heat, embers or flames. Composite deck materials, while not fireproof, are harder to ignite.

In the aftermath of the Cerro Grande Fire more than 20 years ago, new Los Alamos County building codes taught us how to build in forests. Boulder County shows it’s appropriate everywhere. Indoor sprinklers do nothing against flames outside our doors, but fake adobe walls may hold up very well indeed.

Kim Shanahan has been a Santa Fe green builder since 1986 and a sustainability consultant since 2019. Contact him at shanafe@aol.com.

(5) comments

Michael Kiley

My comment below should have included in the effective attack at Kibling and C470, West Metro Fire, and one of my old agencies, Intercanyon Fire Rescue from its nearby Deer Canyon Station.

Michael Kiley

The column author clearly knows construction, and the lessons have wisdom. But as a retired firefighter paramedic from the Denver-Boulder area, I repeat my concerns about what may be a failure of fire suppression of the "Marshal" fire. And insert this reminder, at structure fire temperatures, EVERYTHING burns, or melts, including car wheels. I love the city of Boulder, worked for them on things like a concessioner policy for Boulder Mountain Parks, to license climbing guides in the flatirons. But the really weird thing is how the Boulder County Sheriff runs firefighting. At the press briefings there was someone absent, even one firefighter. There were only cops, along with the other dignitaries. In California, where I was Rescue Operations Supervisor for the California State Police (not the CHP), I was a member of the Santa Barbara County Emergency Services Committee, where the Sheriff sat at one end of the table, and the fire chiefs at the other, and shouting sessions between them did occur. The word was that the CHP ran the state, and the CHP had ordered fire trucks not to run hot on highway 101. Anyway, Boulder, the county has dozens of tiny fire districts each with its own volunteer fire company. I think the Sheriff became the county fire boss, apart from the statutes, by the presence of an authority vacuum, declaring himself the ruler of volunteer firefighters. Now to the firestorm disaster. I have pictures of where a wildland fire that same day was stopped in southern Jefferson County, Colorado, just south of Denver, by an effective air and ground attack by South Metro Fire and other major agencies, just before it hit houses, at C470 and Kipling. Stopped it. So why the failure in Boulder? Wind for one, wind rules wildfire behavior. But I think the role of the Boulder Sheriff needs some looking into.

Khal Spencer

Good piece.

I recall reading in Kristen Iversen's book book about Rocky Flats, "Full Body Burden" that high winds were not uncommon at Rocky Flats, which is a stone's throw from Louisville/Superior and both a stone's throw from the Front Range. Here are some historical wind speed numbers for Boulder going back as far as the sixties.

https://psl.noaa.gov/boulder/wind.html

We have friends in Lafayette and have been up to the Boulder Co. area repeatedly over the last decade. Homes have been going up, cheek to jowl, across the area reminding me of Pete Seeger's "Little Boxes" as open space is devoured and traffic backs up for miles.

Drying may have something to do with this last disaster, but abysmal land use planning can be blamed on a lack of consideration for the habitat we are moving into as we continue to fill open space with housing, maximizing density and profit.

David Ford

"Cheek to Jowl" Absolutely sir. I lived in the Boulder/Longmont area for 35 years and went to a DOD high school (Yo-HI!) in Yokohama, Japan in the late 60's. When riding on the train there you see nothing but houses and cities for almost the entire circuit around Tokyo Bay with rarely a break. My last trip to Colorado in 2019 gave me pause for that very reason. With housing communities springing up all along the I-25 corridor it won't be long before the drive from Castle Rock to Fort Collins becomes just as congested.

Stapleton airport, now DIA, was moved 30 miles east and within two years multiple and massive housing communities sprung up all around the airport, and of course, predictably started complaining about the noise.

And yes the wind is a huge issue for the front range having experienced 100+ mph Chinook winds many times.

Alexander Brown

A welcome column. Would be productive to go deeper here too. Immense Fires are now regular devastating occurrences in the West.

What class is your roof ? A, B , C , other. How long will it stand up to embers ? How long do embers last. Is the industry standard adequate. It would appear not. Everything burns. Are there new or better methods for improving fire safety of existing roof technologies. How strictly should firebreaks around the home be enacted. Love those trees but.... Are studies this is based upon updated to our new phenomenom of regular massive Fires . Is there better information about the distances and the heat that shatters windows ? Does this information align with fire break distances.

Colorado friends say, "upgrade your insurance , everybody is under- insured",

that they are learning this the hard way. Which Insurance companies are giving best customer satisfaction, which disappointing. Are there insurance companies giving appropriate discounts for best fire safety practices. What are best practices right now for those with limited budgets.

"Canary in the Coal Mine" is very apt. It's not IF but WHEN the next Big Fire arrives.

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