Fire mitigation task force struggles for solutions

June 27, 2013 Updated: June 27, 2013 at 6:45 pm
photo - El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark (second from right) and representatives of the Colorado Springs Fire Dept. answered questions from a state task force group on mitigation at the Flying W Ranch on Thursday, June 27, 2013. (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett)
El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark (second from right) and representatives of the Colorado Springs Fire Dept. answered questions from a state task force group on mitigation at the Flying W Ranch on Thursday, June 27, 2013. (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett) 

Over the next 17 years, state officials expect more people to move into 2.2 million acres of Colorado's remaining unoccupied territory.

Those thousands of people will find themselves in wildfire danger zones, where homes are more vulnerable, and insurance is either non-existent or expensive. If they lose those homes to wildfire, their struggle will just be beginning. They'll have to rehabilitate the land and consider if and how they will rebuild.

The task of addressing these scenarios has been placed on the shoulders of a statewide task force of insurance, building and forest professionals. Gov. John Hickenlooper created the Wildfire Insurance and Forest Health task force in January, and 18 of its members took a field trip on Thursday to see first-hand what it means to live in a wildfire zone.

"This is one of the steepest learning curves that I've had to endure," said Barbara Kelley, chair of the group. "We've a monumental task before us to come back with recommendations. We can't reinvent the wheel."

Instead, Kelley, who is also the executive director of the Department of Regulatory Agencies, and others spent Thursday learning what resources Colorado has already amassed to aid in fire recovery prevention.

Their day began in the far reaches of western Teller County, where the 2002 Hayman fire, the largest in state history, denuded over 138,000 acres. Lead by Carol Ekarius, executive director of the Coalition for the Upper South Platte, they toured flood plains and subdivisions within the burn scar. They ended the multi-county tour at the Flying W Ranch - destroyed by the Waldo Canyon fire - where they pressed Colorado Springs firefighters on fire mitigation, rebuilding, and fire code changes.

On July 1, the task force will report to Hickenlooper with suggestions on how Colorado can better prepare.

After touring a Teller County subdivision, Ridgewood, which has been thoroughly mitigated, the group grappled with how to enforce mitigation and the building of fire-resistant homes at a state-wide level.

While they can impact the subdivisions yet to be rebuilt, it seems they can do little to impact old developments.

"What do you do about the thousands of homes already there?" questioned Lisa Dale, assistant director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. "I think that's something this group is really going to struggle with."

In the meantime, persuading homeowners to take fire mitigation seriously is a perpetual struggle. The task force visited Jean Blaisdell in her forested subdivision of Highway 67, where she championed a Firewise Community program after the Hayman fire. Although the blaze just missed the collection of 100 homes in the forest, the community applied for grants to help thin the thick and dangerously dry ponderosa pines around their homes.

When Blaisdell first built her home in the early 1980s, she told builders to "leave as many of the trees as possible." Two decades later the thinking has changed; now, even before residents build in the subdivision, they have their properties mitigated, she said.

"I expect (more) new residents will do the same thing," she told the task force. "Particularly if they've lived in Colorado and watch the news."

Not everyone in Blaisdell's neighborhood has embraced mitigation. Some can't afford it, and there is at least one Wiccan homeowner who values her spiritual connection to the trees over intensive mitigation. One the challenges the task force faces is developing incentives that will encourage mitigation.

But mitigation is not infallible, the task force learned. It can't stop devastating blazes, nor can even the best mitigated homes be guaranteed insurance.

A few homes in Ridgewood have been dropped by their insurance companies, Blaisdell said.

Insurance could become one of the greatest challenges to emerge from the Black Forest fire, the task force was told on Thursday. Ekarius suspects that "a lot of people" who lost homes in the fire were uninsured. No one seems to know exactly how many just yet, she said.

El Paso County and Federal Emergency Management Officials have spent the past week in the Black Forest burn area, assessing the area's potential for a FEMA disaster declaration grant. One grant El Paso County commissioners are hoping for would provide individual assistance to homeowners without insurance.

But the county has to prove that it has $6.7 million worth of uninsured damages, and as of Thursday it was coming up short.

The Black Forest fire victims could also be caught in another insurance snare. The Colorado Insurance Reform Act of 2013, which was designed to ease the wildfire recovery process, goes into effect on Monday.

Ekarius fears that Black Forest fire, which started on June 11, will be exempted from the law, leaving aid for homeowners in the hands of state and local officials.

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