Burning questions: How much do wildfires cost, and who gets the bill?

Burning questions: How much do wildfires cost, and who gets the bill?

09 April 2014

published by www.aspendailynews.com

USA — How to measure the true costs of fighting wildfires in Colorado — and how to decide who should pay — are the subjects of a two-day conference set to take place in Glenwood Springs next week.

The event, titled The True Cost of Wildfire, will take place on April 16-17 at the Glenwood Springs Community Center. It will bring firefighters, politicians, planners and economists together from across the state and the country to grapple with the fact that while the cost of fighting fires in Colorado will almost certainly rise in the coming years, the pool of federal money available for fire suppression may not.

With most long-range forecasts calling for hotter, drier and longer fire seasons in the future due to climate change, and with the number of Coloradans living in the fire-prone wildland/urban interface (WUI) projected to roughly double by 2030, a perfect storm of fire danger could be brewing in Colorado.

To avert that scenario, conference organizers say planners and politicians need to integrate wildfire preparedness into every aspect of community planning, while also discouraging new development in the most fire prone areas.

“Where to put new homes, new subdivisions, new roads — we want planners to be thinking about fire risk as they’re doing their jobs,” said conference organizer Doug Paul of the Bureau of Land Management’s Upper Colorado Interagency Fire Management Unit in Grand Junction.

“Sometimes firefighters may feel a pressure to protect homes that aren’t in the safest place to be protected, and that’s when we get into trouble,” Paul said. “Within 30 or 40 miles of Glenwood Springs we have seen well over 20 or 30 fatalities from people fighting wildland fire, and for me personally, that’s what’s at stake here.”

When calculating the total cost of fighting wildfires, Paul said, it’s easy to over-simplify the equation by focusing only on suppression costs, or the money spent to actually extinguish the fire. In reality, though, the financial toll of wildfires is much more far-reaching, often encompassing damage to infrastructure, water quality, forest ecosystems and tourist economies.

To illustrate that point, Mayor Eric Grossman of the small southern Colorado town of Creede will speak at next week’s conference on how the West Fork Fire of 2013 severely damaged his town’s tourist trade during the short summer travel season.

“We need to realize that the costs don’t end when the fire is put out,” Paul said.

Putting aside the question of how to accurately account for the cost of wildfire, a more contentious debate is now raging in Colorado over how much individual homeowners and local governments — rather than the federal government — should pay to protect homes in fire-prone areas.

In September, a task force assembled by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper after the historic fire seasons of 2012 and 2013 issued a report containing a sweeping slate of measures designed to discourage development in risky fire zones and share the cost of protecting homes there.

The report recommends that the federal government create a nationwide set of wildfire risk maps that could be used to charge fees to people who build homes in the WUI, and could help insurance companies charge higher premiums for such dwellings. The report also suggests that state regulators adopt a statewide building code mandating fireproof materials and minimum buffers between rural homes and surrounding vegetation.

Such ideas are controversial among members of the homebuilding and real estate industries, and so far they’ve found little traction with politicians. Yet Ray Rasker, an economist who heads the Montana-based think tank Headwaters Economics and is scheduled to speak at next week’s conference, said the difficulty of such recommendations doesn’t make them any less essential.

Rasker says federal taxpayers are currently spending about $5 billion per year on firefighting to protect homes in the WUI, an amount that has roughly tripled in the last decade and is borne by federal taxpayers everywhere, not just those living in risky fire zones.

“What if a larger share of the costs were born by local governments?” Rasker asked, suggesting that such an arrangement would push local planners and politicians to limit new home construction in areas of high fire danger. “It doesn’t mean that you don’t build [in the WUI], but there needs to be significant financial consequences to not prioritizing smart development.”

The federal government could impose such consequences, Rasker said, by refusing to provide firefighting aid to communities that don’t adopt fire-smart planning and zoning policies, for example by integrating their local comprehensive plans with wildfire protection plans.

“I think integrated planning is one of the central ideas that planners should come away from this conference with,” Rasker said.

Several governments in the Roaring Fork Valley are already working to adopt such an integrated approach to wildfire planning.

Pitkin County, whose emergency manager Valerie MacDonald helped organize next week’s wildfire conference, is set this week to hire a year-round wildfire mitigation specialist to coordinate the efforts of homeowners associations, political caucuses and other groups already doing fire mitigation work across the county.

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