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 actually 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 lightening sparked the High Park fire on June 9. The fire west of Fort Collins quickly became the most damaging in state history, 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.”
The growth of population in the red zone slowed some after the giant Hayman Fire near Colorado Springs ten years ago this month. But the 2010 census shows 100,000 more Coloradans – Bozzell and Roth among them – moving into a red zone.
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’s one of every four homes and one of every five people in the state.
In some counties, including Pitkin – home to Aspen – Teller and Summit counties, 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 records. In the past decade, Colorado saw an average of about 2,500 fires a year burning nearly 100,000 acres.
Some of the explosion 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 which killed three people 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 both 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. 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.
• The 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 both 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 only two percent of wildfires that started naturally burn. The rest were fought, largely to protect homes in high-risk fire areas – areas the federal government calls Wildland Urban Interface, or WUI (pronounced “woo-ee”). But snuffing natural fires allows biomass buildup that can fuel more catastrophic fires.
And 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 OIG reported.
“We’ll never see a change in the cost of firefighting unless there is local cost accountability,” says Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics in Bozeman, Mont., an independent, non-partisan research firm that has analyzed the costs of western wildfires for the past decade.
Rasker points out that it’s easy for local officials to approve developments when the taxpayers at large pay for their protection from wildfires.
But efforts to get residents of high-risk fire zones to pay for their own wildfire protection has proven nearly impossible. Last year California passed a fee of up to $150 per structure on residents in high-risk fire zones. California Gov. Jerry Brown hoped it could raise up to $200 million from the state’s 846,000 residents of rural lands in which Cal Fire was responsible for protecting homes. This year California Republicans put forth a bill to repeal that levy, saying it amounted to an unfair tax on rural residents already paying for county fire protection.
Texas, which experienced its most destructive wildfires in history last year, had cut $34 million from its Forest Service’s budget over the past two years, forcing it to plead for federal aid to deal with the fires that destroyed thousands of homes.
There are federal efforts to make communities more resilient to wildfires through Community Wildfire Protection Plans and programs like Firewise, which help homeowners and communities cooperate to reduce their vulnerability to forest fires. The programs have proven effective, but they’re slow to catch on due to their cost, visual impacts on the landscape, and residents’ resistance to being told how to care for their property.
And, according to Rasker, those programs can themselves be perverse incentives, as builders use the fact that their homes are more fire resistant to justify developing deeper into the red zone.
“Everybody seems to have drunk the Kool-Aid on FireWise,” Rasker says. “Keep building in dangerous places, just have a metal roof.”
Jack Cohen, of the Missoula Fire Lab in Montana, is an expert in what causes homes to burn.
“We can still have extreme wildfire behavior and still not necessarily have to have a residential fire disaster,” Cohen says.
The problem is homeowners, governments and the public are not willing to do – and especially to pay for – the mitigation that would protect those homes.
The question of whether homes can resist more intense wildfires is significant, says Tania Schoennagel, a CU geography professor and a researcher at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research,
Schoennagel recently studied how current development trends are affecting wildfire risk. She found areas zoned for future development are at even greater wildfire risk.
Earlier housing developments in the Colorado’s red zones were generally at lower elevation with more widely spaced trees and less steep terrain. Forests there, if excess fire suppression didn’t let them grow unnaturally thick, tend to burn along the ground with low intensity. If those forests are restored to their historic density and health, homeowners would likely confront less-intense fires.
But new developments in the red zone are increasingly at elevations above 8,000 feet in forests often dominated by lodgepole pine, which tend to burn in large, intense crown fires that destroy entire stands of trees. Steep slopes and chimney-like canyons in the high country magnify the intensity of those fires. Topographic maps show that all of the homes destroyed in the deadly Lower North Fork fire last March were at elevations between 8,000 and 8,500 feet.
“As you move up in elevation you get … very dense forests – those lodgepole pine forests,” Shoennagel said. “Characteristic of those are these high severity fires that happen very infrequently and burn through the treetops. They’re very difficult to fight.”
The growing population and fire intensity makes setting public policy all the more difficult, too. As for Bozzell and Roth, if their home survives the giant High Park fire, they’ll face the decision all over again of whether to live in one of Colorado’s red zones.