Conference: Wildfire costs higher than realized

GLENWOOD SPRINGS — The costs of wildfire go far beyond firefighting and property damage and extend to everything from environmental tolls on landscapes to emotional tolls on humans.

That’s according to speakers Wednesday at the Colorado Wildland Fire Conference 2014. It continues today in Glenwood Springs, where 14 firefighters died on Storm King Mountain 20 years ago this July 6 and some 30 homes were destroyed by the Coal Seam Fire of 2002.

The many wildlfire costs add to the urgency to address prevention and suppression needs at a time of climate change and bigger and more destructive fires, speakers said.

Just suppressing wildfires costs about $4.7 billion a year for all levels of government in the United States, but getting a fuller accounting of the costs of fire is extremely difficult, fire ecologist Robert Gray told Wednesday’s audience, which ranged from local to federal government officials, and professional planners to firefighting personnel.

Non-suppression fire costs can cover everything from watershed and air quality impacts to infrastructure shutdowns and firefighter fatalities, Gray said.

Gray said the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire in New Mexico ended up having a total estimated cost of $906 million, of which suppression accounted for only 3 percent.

Creede Mayor Eric Grossman said the wildfire in the vicinity of that town last summer didn’t damage one structure other than a pumphouse. But the damage to its tourism-based economy was immense.

“We’re a three-, four-month (seasonal tourism) economy and once that fire started everybody left, and rightfully so, but the problem was they didn’t come back,” he said.

A lot of the consequences can play out over years or even decades, Gray said.

“The most critical thing here is it doesn’t (all) happen right away,” he said.

A fire in Arizona destroyed sawmills, something that will have a multigenerational cost, he said.

He cited a damaging wildfire in Slave Lake, in Alberta, Canada, where post-traumatic stress disorder in children didn’t surface until a year afterward. Yet thanks to the damage to homes from the fire there were fewer medical professionals still available in the town to treat them.

“You’re dealing with a grieving process” in the case of landowners who have lost homes, said Carol Ekarius, who as executive director of the Coalition for the Upper South Platte has dealt with watershed and other issues in the wake of the 2002 Hayman Fire and other Front Range fires.

The Hayman Fire was well over 100,000 acres in size and Ekarius has estimated its total costs at more than $2,000 an acre. That’s partly due to denuded slopes that were vulnerable to flooding, led to silt getting in reservoirs and required rehabilitation work.

“With big fires always come big floods and big debris flows,” Ekarius said.

Gray said measures such as mitigating fire danger through more forest thinning can reduce the risks. The 2013 Rim Fire in California caused $1.8 billion in environmental and property damage, or $7,800 an acre, he said.

“We can do an awful lot of treatment at $7,800 an acre and actually save money,” he said.

One problem is that a lot of acreage in need of treatment can’t be treated in a profitable manner in terms of selling forest products, but Gray said the traditional economic appraisal doesn’t take into account the potential cost when treatment doesn’t occur and acreage burns.

Noah Koerper, regional director for U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., said the cost of wildfires versus treatment “doesn’t just affect western states and forests, that affects everyone. This is becoming a part of the conversation, is the overall costs,” he said.

Fires now account for 40 percent of the U.S. Forest Service budget, up from 13 percent just 10 years ago, Koerper said.

He said Bennet is hopeful about bipartisan legislation that would shift about 30 percent of fire suppression funds from the Forest Service to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. There, it wouldn’t be subject to congressional appropriations, unlike in the case of the Forest Service, which is forced to rely on appropriations in the winter when it can’t predict what kind of fire season is coming the following summer, he said.

Ray Rasker, executive director of the Montana-based Headwaters Economics research nonprofit, said nearly 5,000 homes are now burning a year in the United States as fires get bigger and burn longer during a fire season that’s now longer thanks to a changing climate.

Part of the problem is homes being built in the wildland-urban interface, he said. But with 84 percent of that interface still not developed, he would like to see better planning to control the pace, scale and pattern of future development.

“This doesn’t mean you don’t build, but it means you can build creatively and differently,” he said.

One example would be to allow denser development if homes are built in areas where they can be better protected from fires, he said.

Other suggestions he makes include requiring full disclosure of wildfire risk for potential homebuyers, billing county governments for their share of firefighting costs, shifting more firefighting responsibility to the local level, and eliminating the mortgage tax deduction for new homes in high-risk areas.

Bill Hahnenberg, who has served as incident commander on several fires, said many destructive fires are human-caused because humans live in the wildland-urban interface.

“That’s why I think we should maybe pay more attention to fire prevention,” he said.

Just how large the potential consequences of fire can be was demonstrated in Glenwood Springs’ Coal Seam Fire. In that case the incident commander was close to evacuating the entire town, Hahnenberg said.

“How would that play (out)?” he said. “I’m not just picking on Glenwood, it’s a question for many communities. How would you do that?”

He suggested it’s a scenario communities would do well to prepare for in advance.

This week’s conference is being sponsored by emergency managers from Eagle, Summit, Pitkin, Garfield and Mesa counties, and by the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, Colorado State Forest Service, Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management and the Southern Rockies Fire Science Network.


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