Study blames developers, failed public policy for high costs of fighting fires

Coloradans living in the high-fire-risk wildland-urban interface (WUI) have been casting nervous glances at the hazy horizon the last few days as smoke from the massive Station fire in Southern California makes its way 1,300 miles to our normally cobalt-blue skies.

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There’s a feeling in mountain communities that this state is just a dry lightning strike away from the kind of catastrophe engulfing the Golden State, where the Station Fire alone had killed two firefighters, destroyed more than 50 buildings and scorched thousands of acres of public and private land near Los Angeles. And that’s just one of several fires currently raging around California.

There have been some nail-biting moments so far this summer in Colorado’s high country, with a few fires on the Western Slope threatening to “go Hayman” — our last big blaze you could see from space — but a fairly wet spring and summer has minimized the damage. Still, with an ongoing mountain pine bark beetle epidemic killing nearly 2 million acres of trees the past decade, most experts say it’s only a matter of time.

Bozeman, Mont.-based Headwaters Economics, an independent, non-profit research group, recently conducted a study for the Montana state legislature based on the 2006 and 2007 wildland fire seasons in Montana that came to some sobering conclusions on how best to reduce firefighting costs.

“Our research shows that with only a one-degree increase in average summer temperatures the cost of protecting homes from wildfires will double to quadruple by 2025 if current climate change and residential development trends and policies continue,” Chris Mehl of Headwaters said.

The study found that in the western United States only 14 percent of forested private lands near fire-prone public lands (aka, the WUI … pronounced “woo-ie”) is developed for residential use. It currently costs federal and state governments about $1 billion a year to fight fires and protects homes in those areas, the study found, but if 50 percent of the WUI is developed, that number jumps to more than $4 billion a year for taxpayers.

The study puts a lot of the blame at the feet of local government officials and developers:

“The current approach to fire suppression has perverse incentives and lacks accountability. People who develop in forested areas, and local governments that allow such new subdivisions, do not pay their share of fire fighting costs. The majority of firefighting expenses instead are paid by the Forest Service, BLM, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In other words, the national taxpayer pays the tab.”

And it finds that some strides are being made in better protecting homes and developing neighborhoods with wildfire in mind, but that such strides could have unintended consequences:

“Some communities are adopting Firewise protections such as defensible space and better building materials. This important step improves safety for homes on the 14 percent of already developed land near forests. Firewise, however, could unintentionally encourage sprawl on the remaining 86 percent of land near public forests, if it sends the message that it is safe to build on fire-prone landscapes.”

The Headwaters study then makes eight recommendations for reversing the trend of the increasing risks and costs of building homes in the WUI:

• Publicize maps identifying high-risk wildfire areas
• Educate policy makers and the public about the financial consequences of building in fire-prone areas
• Redirect federal aid to encourage land use planning on private lands
• Provide incentives for counties to sign firefighting cost-share agreements
• Purchase land or obtain easements on fire-prone lands
• Institute a national fire insurance and mortgage program to require home firefighting insurance
• Allow insurance companies to charge higher premiums in fire-prone areas
• Limit development near fire risk lands through planning or local zoning

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