Firefighting costs will soar as Colorado homes continue to develop on forested land

Firefighting costs will soar as Colorado homes continue to develop on forested land

17 June 2013

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USA — In just a couple of days time the Black Forest Fire set the record for number of homes destroyed. And now it’s soared to more than 500 homes. The total cost to fight the fire has exceeded $7 million.

Director of Public Policy at Headwaters Economics Chris Mehl says that in the only 16 percent of the wildlife urban interface in the 11 western states is developed.

“In other words there are many places that are prone to fire that don’t yet have homes on them,” Mehl said.

But, as people continue to build homes on forested areas, firefighting costs will soar.

“It’s no secret that many people love living in Colorado,” Mehl said. “Summit county is kind of the poster child for that. They had not just one, but several real estate booms. People were trying to live out among the woods. They wanted to have the forest as their front yard. And with that comes incredible scenery, but also responsibility in times like this when we’re at risk of wildfires.”

According to Mehl, the costs to defend homes from fires is enormously expensive, especially when a home stands alone on several acres of land.

“The more densely the homes are constructed the cheaper and also safer it is to defend them,” Mehl said. “We found that the cost can be from anywhere from $5000 a day for defending a home – up to tens of thousands of dollars a day for a home that’s out by itself – say, on 6 acres of its own land. In some places in California and in Montana we’ve spent far more than the price of the home trying to defend the structure.”

Even though the costs are high, Mehl says it’s important to save homes in the line of fire.

“I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do it. But we should be cognizant of the cost. There’s a tremendous cost there. [It’s often] hundreds of thousands of dollars per home to try and protect these structures from fire when the fire occurs.”

Mehl says most homeowners do not pay a premium for fire insurance – and that firefighting costs are often passed on to taxpayers.

“It’s [firefighting costs] not yet at the cost of what floods are from hurricanes on the east coast,” Mehl said. “But with the west growing in population, anyone who lives in the Front Range area is well aware that we’re heading in that direction just because more and more homes are at risk.”

“The percentage of second homes is fascinating,” Mehl said. “How do we ask those folks to have firefighting insurance and bear some of those costs right now? We’re spending an enormous amount of money defending second homes, often in cases like Summit County. And we have to. Frankly, we made a contract with them. The real question is what do we do about the homes built next year – or the year after? The homes have to be protected.”

Mehl says it’s time to have a discussion about how to pay for firefighting costs – because the cost to the taxpayers will only increase.

“I think that’s a discussion we have to have, not only at the county level, but with Gov. Hickenlooper -and frankly with the President – and the head of the Forest Service and other agencies.”

Headwaters Economics has put together a list of Colorado counties with the largest numbers of homes in Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) areas, as of the 2010 census.

Summit County – 22,886 homes
Eagle County – 12,855 homes
Jefferson County – 12,103 homes
Boulder County – 7,239 homes
La Plata County – 6,407 homes

In the west only 16 percent of land prone to wildfires is developed. However, that number is expected to increase with developments expanding.

The Colorado State Forest Service has created an interactive map that shows what areas are most at risk for wildfires.

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