USA –-The number of wildfires in Colorado has exploded during the past decade. So has the number of people living in high-risk fire zones.
And public policies for dealing with both risk making the state’s fire danger even worse, an I-News Network investigation found.
In the past two decades, a quarter- million people have moved into Colorado’s red zones the parts of the state at risk for the most dangerous wildfires. Today, one of every four Colorado homes is in a red zone.
Ellen Bozzell and her husband, Scott Roth, felt the lure of a red zone four years ago. The beautiful forest. Winds to generate power. They built their dream home in the mountainside subdivision of Buckskin Heights, overlooking Fort Collins.
But the thick trees, gusty winds and steep terrain made for a catastrophic combination when lightning sparked the High Park fire June 9. The fire west of Fort Collins quickly became the most damaging in state history at the time, destroying more homes than any other and killing one person.
“If our house burns down, we won’t rebuild up there,” Bozzell said the day after her evacuation, taking refuge in a friend’s barn. “We will move into town.”
Fueling the fires
The growth of population in red zones slowed some after the giant Hayman fire near Colorado Springs 10 years ago this month. But the 2010 census shows 100,000 more Coloradans Bozzell and Roth among them moving into red zones.
Today, 1.1 million Coloradans live in more than half a million homes in red zones across the state, an I-News analysis found. That accounts for one of every five people in the state. In some counties including Pitkin, Teller and Summit more than 90 percent of the population lives in a red zone.
As the number of people in red zones has exploded, so has the number of fires and the damage each did.
In the 1960s, Colorado averaged about 460 fires each year that burned about 8,000 acres annually, according to Colorado State Forest Service rec-ords. In the past decade, Colorado saw an average of about 2,500 fires a year burning nearly 100,000 acres.
Some of the rise in fires is explainable by climate change. In some areas of the Rocky Mountains, the fire season is almost two months longer than it used to be. Colorado’s fire season has consistently extended into the spring as the drying and warming climate thins snowpacks and desiccates fuels earlier in the spring.
“Looking back historically, spring was not considered part of fire season in Colorado until the very recent past,” says Elk Creek Fire Chief Bill McLaughlin, one of the chiefs who led the fight against the Lower North Fork fire in which three people were killed in March. “It’s been largely the last decade that they’ve seen those spring fires occurring.”
But climate change is not the only problem.
Public policies regarding population growth and forest management are adding to the wildfire problem:
It costs millions to protect homes in the red zone from wildfires, but homeowners don’t foot that bill exclusively. All taxpayers do. That creates a perverse incentive to build there despite risks.
A continued population boom in the red zones is pushing homebuilders to higher elevations, where forest conditions increase the chances of more intense fires.
Rocky Mountain forests have become overgrown and in many cases unhealthy. State and federal forest- management policies call for cutting down excess trees and doing prescribed burns. But the population boom puts pressure on these strategies people often don’t want to see trees cut or landscapes burned near their homes. That leaves the forests full of highly flammable fuel, waiting for the next fire.
Researchers at the Fort Collins Laboratory of the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station reviewed satellite images of three forests with heavy damage from pine beetles that had been mechanically thinned. They found around 150,000 “jack piles” stacks of dry timber from forest-thinning efforts waiting to be burned.
“There’s little time to treat all those,” says Chuck Rhoades, research biogeochemist at the Fort Collins Laboratory. “A lot of them are probably not going to get burned.”
At least not until a wildfire reaches them.
“If those things burn hot, you’ve created a new fire hazard,” Rhoades says. “You may have just moved the problem around.”
In the wake of the Hayman fire, federal and state foresters increased the area of the forest treated with mechanical-thinning and prescribed-burning projects but say they have hardly scratched the surface of millions of acres of Rocky Mountain forests that need restoration. In the meantime, the increasing population in the woods requires greater protection from wildfires.
In 2006, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General estimated that, between 1998 and 2005, forest managers let burn only 2 percent of wildfires that started naturally. The rest were fought, largely to protect homes in high-risk fire areas areas the federal government calls Wildland Urban Interface, or WUI. But snuffing natural fires allows biomass buildup that can fuel more catastrophic fires.
The fact that the bill for protecting private homes is borne by taxpayers at large “removes the incentives for landowners moving into the WUI to take responsibility for their own protection and ensure homes are constructed and landscaped in ways that reduce wildfire risks,” the Office of Inspector General reported.