Forest Service research aims to pinpoint costs of wildfires

Forest Service research aims to pinpoint costs of wildfires

 01 November 2007

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SUMMIT COUNTY — Recent studies by the Forest Service could provide ammunition for West Slope communities seeking more funding for wildfire prevention projects.

Compiled into a two-page briefing paper, the data has already been used as part of a regional lobbying effort to boost Forest Service budgets in the High Country and around the wider region.

The research by regional economist Mike Retzlaff suggests that a big wildfire in the wildland-urban interface (WUI) could put all of Summit County’s water and sanitation districts out of business from a combination of direct damage to facilities, along with fiscal impacts from lost tax revenues.

Since the local districts are all property tax-based, a big drop in assessed property values could put a dent in revenues needed to pay off debt service, said Northwest Colorado Council of Governments director Gary Severson.

Retzlaff looked at the economic impacts in Teller County, where the 2002 Hayman Fire resulted in a significant drop in property values.

Those values are now starting to come back, but the potential impact in Summit County is huge, with 96 percent of assessed property values in the so-called red zone.

Retzlaff said the next step in his economic modeling is to try and show the impacts district by district, based on various fire scenarios.

But even with the current models, Severson said the data is useful as Western Colorado looks for federal dollars. The idea is to show lawmakers that it’s much less expensive to spend money for forest treatments upfront rather than facing enormous back-end expenses.

Severson pointed out, for example, that Denver Water has spent $22 million to abate erosion and control sediment flows into municipal reservoirs. That sum should help provide some perspective as Colorado seeks $2 to $3 million for wildfire mitigation projects.

“The cost on the other side could be hundreds of times as much,” Severson said.
Initial reports from the recent Southern California wildfires support that same conclusion. Some fire officials and forest managers have said that forest thinning and other preventive work prevented far greater damage during the recent blazes.
Severson said Retzlaff’s research also shows other significant local economic impacts. Figures from Grand County suggest that about 30 percent of that area’s 16,000 jobs are dependent on activities in the red zone, including recreation and home construction.

A fire that significantly impacts those activities could strike a severe blow to fundamental pillars of local economies, Severson said.

Retzlaff’s research also shows that the economic effects of a big Summit County wildfire would be felt far beyond the county line. Local headwater streams serve about 281,000 Denver Water customers, and there are other factors to consider, including threats to the regional power grid.

“It’s more than just trees dying in the forest,” Severson said, characterizing Retzlaff’s work as an important step toward pinning some real numbers to the wildfire threat.

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