Summit County, USA — Recent studies by the ForestService could provide ammunition for West Slope communities seeking more fundingfor wildfire prevention projects.
Compiled into a two-page briefing paper, the data has already been used as partof a regional lobbying effort to boost Forest Service budgets in the HighCountry and around the wider region.
The research by regional economist Mike Retzlaff suggests that a big wildfire inthe wildland-urban interface (WUI) could put all of Summit Countys water andsanitation districts out of business from a combination of direct damage tofacilities, along with fiscal impacts from lost tax revenues.
Since the local districts are all property tax-based, a big drop in assessedproperty 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 HaymanFire resulted in a significant drop in property values.
Those values are now starting to come back, but the potential impact in SummitCounty is huge, with 96 percent of assessed property values in the so-called redzone.
Retzlaff said the next step in his economic modeling is to try and show theimpacts district by district, based on various fire scenarios.
But even with the current models, Severson said the data is useful as WesternColorado looks for federal dollars. The idea is to show lawmakers that itsmuch less expensive to spend money for forest treatments upfront rather thanfacing enormous back-end expenses.
Severson pointed out, for example, that Denver Water has spent $22 million toabate erosion and control sediment flows into municipal reservoirs. That sumshould help provide some perspective as Colorado seeks $2 to $3 million forwildfire mitigation projects.
The cost on the other side could be hundreds of times as much, Seversonsaid. Initial reports from the recent Southern California wildfires support that sameconclusion. Some fire officials and forest managers have said that forestthinning and other preventive work prevented far greater damage during therecent blazes. Severson said Retzlaffs research also shows other significant local economicimpacts. Figures from Grand County suggest that about 30 percent of thatareas 16,000 jobs are dependent on activities in the red zone, includingrecreation and home construction.
A fire that significantly impacts those activities could strike a severe blow tofundamental pillars of local economies, Severson said.
Retzlaffs research also shows that the economic effects of a big SummitCounty wildfire would be felt far beyond the county line. Local headwaterstreams serve about 281,000 Denver Water customers, and there are other factorsto consider, including threats to the regional power grid.
Its more than just trees dying in the forest, Severson said,characterizing Retzlaffs work as an important step toward pinning some realnumbers to the wildfire threat.