Most of county in danger zone for wildfire

Analysis: Population living in areas at high risk has soared

An analysis of population trends and wildfire risk shows that local residents should find it no surprise that dangerous wildfires such as the recent State Line and Weber fires are nipping at their heels.

Across the state, the number of people living in high-risk fire zones has exploded. And public policies for dealing with both actually risk making the state’s fire danger even worse, an I-News Network investigation found.

In La Plata County, 74 percent of the population lives in a “red zone” – the parts of the state at risk for the most dangerous wildfires. This represents a nearly 20 percent increase from just 10 years ago, when the devastating Missionary Ridge Fire consumed 72,962 acres of surrounding forest.

Statewide, a quarter million people have moved into red zones in the last two decades.

As the number of people in red zones has ballooned, 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 last 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.

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.

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 2 percent of wildfires that started naturally burn. The rest were fought, largely to protect homes in high-risk fire areas – places the federal government calls Wildland Urban Interface. 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 removes the incentives for landowners to reduce their risks, the OIG reported.

But efforts to get residents of high-risk fire zones to pay for their own wildfire protection has proved 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 last 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 has worked closely with local subdivisions including Forest Lakes and Falls Creek to reduce their fire danger.

In general, these programs have proved effective, but they’re slow to catch on because of their cost, visual impacts on the landscape, and residents’ resistance to being told how to care for their property.

The question of whether homes can resist more intense wildfires is significant, says Tania Schoennagel, a Colorado University 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.

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