BETTY ANN BOWSER: When you've seen the horrific pictures, it's hard to believe, but one-third of all the people in Colorado live in an area at high risk for wild fire.
By the year 2030, another two million are expected to have moved into what's called the wild land urban inter-face, or the red zone. And between now and then, officials say the wild fires could get bigger, more destructive and deadly.
FRANK BEEBE, Genesee Fire Chief: People are moving into the urban wild land interface and they haven't got a clue of what's about to happen around them.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: All over the west, fire officials are trying to educate people about the dangers of what may be coming their way.
BILL EASTERLING, Genesee Fire Marshal: The primary goal, the primary concern on any fire is human lives. We're going to preserve human life. That's our number-one, primary goal always. You can always replace a house. You can grow another tree. You can't replace a human life.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The wealthy mountain community of Genesee, 20 miles near Denver, is getting ready. The residents know the possibility of a wild fire is high. But fire was the last thing on their minds when they moved here. Most came because they loved the remoteness, the pristine beauty, and the trees.
Andrew Stirrat is president of the Genesee Homeowners' Association.
ANDREW STIRRAT: Every day I wake up and I just think this is just absolutely a miracle of creation that I can look out at the mountains, at the trees, at the birds and have this right at my fingertips. I found no other place that I have ever been that gives me such a sense of peace and sense of calmness.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But Stirrat's peace and calm have been dashed. This summer instead of looking at the mountains, he and other Genesee residents have been seeing smoke from the big Hayman Fire south of Denver.
Karen Barker is another Genesee homeowner.
KAREN BARKER: I guess I look at the smoke that I see out here as a blessing, because it's giving me time to act now.
I have no excuse if a fire burns down my property. I can't sit here and say, well, I didn't know. I have done nothing. So this weekend I'm taking my heirlooms out, I'm packing all of my records, I'm getting my photographs, getting them prepared, moving them down into the city.
If I didn't see and smell the smoke, maybe I'd still feel like I was in a Never Never Land.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Barker and her neighbors are not naive about the risks of living in the red zone, but recently they've heard US Forest Service officials say this is a new breed of wild fire that could catch them by surprise.
ANDREW STIRRAT: We have two major roads out of this community. They have 900 homes.
And for us, we recognize that this area was potentially a threat in terms of being, one, able to let people leave, but also to be able to bring in emergency vehicles to fight fires here.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Forest Service has a ten-year strategy called the National Fire Plan to reduce the risk of fire in the red zone.
The plan includes 'thinning' because officials say a thinner forest provides a good chance of slowing down a catastrophic wild fire.
So next week, the Genesee Homeowners Association will start thinning trees along the evacuation route.
Rebecca Price is furious with this decision. The trees around her home act as a barrier to traffic noise from nearby Interstate 70. When they are thinned out, she will have less privacy.
And she's not convinced cutting down trees will help people get out faster in the event of a fire.
REBECCA PRICE: I do actually think that's people's right out in the forest. If they want to say, you know, I don't want to do it and if I burn, I burn, well then that's their business.
We don't want to burn here. I don't think anybody wants to burn.
But to take our trees out and to lose our environment, to lose our privacy, to possibly damage water run-off, wildlife.
We don't think the benefits of the thinning as proposed are worth it.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Frank Daviess is on the board of the homeowners association, which is paying for the thinning without any government assistance.
FRANK DAVIESS: You can't expect other people in Jefferson County to spend their money to defend you because you chose to live in a heavily forested habitat with hazards.
It's no different than building your house on a barrier island and expecting the federal government to bail you out after hurricanes.
You're putting yourself in danger by living in wilderness, or on the edge in the urban interface.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Not only do the experts recommend thinning trees along evacuation routes in the red zone, they also talk about the importance of creating something called 'defensible space' around houses, to make them more resistant to fire.
That means moving wood piles and other highly flammable objects away from dwellings, cleaning out underbrush and pine needles.
It also means cutting down trees.
When Barker created more defensible space around her house two years ago, it was painful.
KAREN BARKER: As brave as I'd like to think that I... as humbling as it is -- because I complained and I cried and I just was so ripped up, my husband and I, as we tore down all these trees and now feel like we've acted responsibly, the bottom line is I know if we have anything as bad and as terrible as what's just 20 miles to the south of us, this house is going to go.
So it comes down to, can I live with this house burned, having done all of the right things? The answer is yes, at least I know I've done something.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Very few local governments have done anything to restrict where they allow people to live.
Instead, many now require fire resistant building materials, adobe walls and metal or tile roofs and some have set standards for thinning trees around dwellings.
And the insurance industry is starting to play a role. Many homeowners are now required to create defensible space around their houses to get homeowners insurance in high-risk areas and to renew policies.
But rates are only slightly higher for those who live in the red zone. That's because the industry has seen only a small number of claims from wild fires in Colorado in the past.
But spokesman Carole Walker says that will change.
CAROLE WALKER, Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association: Right now in the state of Colorado, we have more insurance losses due to hail, far more losses. Our most expensive hailstorm back on July 11, 1990, a 45- minute hailstorm cost $625 million worth of damage.
Recently we had a hailstorm in Colorado Springs that cost $24 million in damage. And, we are not seeing those kinds of price tags on wild fire yet.
As we continue to see these kinds of seasons, as this threat grows and there's a trend that happens with wild fire and insurance, you will start to see it.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Several major insurance carriers said today that they expect losses from the Colorado fires so far this year to total at least $50 million.
US Forest Service ecologist Merrill Kaufmann says homeowners need to do much more to fireproof their homes but even then it might not be enough to stop a powerful wild fire.
MERRILL KAUFMANN, U.S. Forest Service: We're dealing with the situation now that even in places where people might have done the mitigation work around their houses, such a fire storm is generated by the condition of the forests in that back country that we might ignore for treatment that that fire would steam roller everything in its path.
There's no way in the world that the amount of defensive work you might do around your house or your subdivision is going to give you enough of a guarantee that your place is going to be safe.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But that danger doesn't stop building in the red zone. New home construction is expected to increase 40 percent in the next 28 years.
And it doesn't stop Frank Daviess from living there.
FRANK DAVIESS: You choose where you live based on all these different factors. This is to me the most appealing.
So if you don't want to live in a denser, more urban type environment, you're putting yourself potentially in the face of these hazards. So I guess that's the answer to it as I don't want to live in an urban center.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: All eight of the wild fires burning today in Colorado at one time threatened to overrun a community in the red zone.
Thousands of people were forced out of their homes for days. And the wild fire season in the west normally doesn't even start until August.