More disastrous fires ahead with sustained effort to address threat
By Summit Voice
FRISCO — Increased development in fire-prone forest lands in Colorado “ensures that the pattern of damaging wildfire will continue,” according to a state task force report released last week.
The report was delivered to Gov. John Hickenlooper and legislative after two consecutive years of deadly and destructive fires along the Front Range.
The report calls for rating the wildfire risks on individual properties, and facilitating mitigation and prevention measures at the local level. Property owners in the red zone should be primarily responsible for adressing wildfire dangers, to the point of paying special fees to help fund mitigation efforts.The task force also recommends a ban on community building or land use requirements that are inconsistent with science-based, Firewise principles.
Other recommendations include development of a statewide model ordinance addressing building materials, zoning codes, defensible space requirement for development in the fire-prone zone known formally as the wildland-urban interface. The standard form real estate contract should also be amended to include disclosure of potential wildfire risks, the report suggests.
“This report gives us constructive and proactive ways to address the wildfire threat in Colorado,” Hickenlooper said. “These recommendations include concrete steps Colorado can take to mitigate wildfire danger. We appreciate the hard work by Task Force members and look forward to working with the General Assembly, local governments and others to take the appropriate next steps.”
Given the complexities of managing development in a state with a strong tradition of private property rights, making any progress will require leaders and citizens of Colorado to make “difficult choices requiring complex political trade-offs and behavioral changes,” the report found.
The report also acknowledges the critical role of wildfire in forest ecosystems, and that wildfire suppression has made forests in Colorado more susceptible to catastrophic fires.
According to the Colorado State Forest Service, the number of wildfires in the state has increased nearly six-fold, from an average of 457 fires per year in the 1960s to an average of 2,707 fires per year in the 2000s. The annual number of acres burned has increased nearly twelve-fold, from an average of 8,170 acres per year in the 1960s to an average of 97,408 acres in the 2000s.
These trends are being exacerbated by climate change, which has increased air temperature, prolonged the fire season, and caused extended periods of drought. Most projections show that global warming will worsen the problem significantly by mid-century.
Colorado’s two most destructive wildfires both occurred within the past year. Combined, the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire and the 2013 Black Forest Fire killed four people, burned more than 30,000 acres, destroyed more than 850 homes, and resulted in more that $750 million in insurance claims.
The Task Force also focused on ways to provide greater customer choice and knowledge of insurance options.
Create a uniform methodology across the state for identifying and quantifying risk to specific properties.
Consider funding needs for mitigation and a fee assessed for properties located in the WUI. These funds would be collected at the state level and distributed to local governments to help offset the costs of mitigation for properties in the WUI.
Support a new approach being developed by the Air Pollution Control Division of the Department of Public Health and Environment for prescribed burns. The new “general permit” will be tested on a pilot basis, and is expected to improve flexibility for conducting prescribed burns while providing for extensive public notification, education and air quality monitoring.
Increase awareness about the importance of property mitigation, inform homeowners and landowners about available resources, including tax incentives, community programs, public/private partnerships and existing insurance reform legislation.
“We hope the recommendations will serve as a way forward to meet our shared goal of protecting lives, property and our natural environment from devastating wildfires,” Task Force Chair Barbara Kelly said. “These ideas will require the collaboration of all stakeholders, from homeowners to communities to industry, to successfully implement.”
The Task Force report also says the recommendations may be further developed, adapted and implemented by the Governor, the Colorado General Assembly, state and local governments, public-private partnerships and the insurance industry.
“The Task Force recognizes that some of its recommendations will be costly and potentially difficult to implement,” the report says. “However, the Task Force accepted that its mission was to identify bold and innovative recommendations to break through the historic barriers.”