Colorado Wildfire risk predicted worsen, unless policies change

April 16, 2014 Updated: April 17, 2014 at 3:03 pm
photo - An aerial photo Thursday, January 24, 2013, of the foothills just west of Mountain Shadows charred by the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette
An aerial photo Thursday, January 24, 2013, of the foothills just west of Mountain Shadows charred by the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette 

Bill Hahnenberg took the mic before a packed room at Wednesday's opening day of the 2014 Colorado Wildland Fire Conference and set an ominous tone with his opening presentation.

Hahnenberg's monologue painted a dark picture of a state and large section of the country that he says is only destined to become more and more ravaged with wildfire and suffer decades of costs unless management practices change.

"I maintain that we haven't mastered fire," said Hahnenberg referring to the notion that humans not only discovered fire but have learned to control it.

Hahnenberg, the Incident Commander of the 2012 High Park Fire that burned more than 87,000 acres near Fort Collins in 2012, gave credence to his statement with United States wildfire statistics. He said prior to 2002, about 6 million acres burned annually. In eight of the last 10 years, that number jumped to about 9 million. And in the very near future, experts expect the trend to continue with up to 12 million acres burning each year.

The Incident Commander and speakers who followed him on Wednesday noted that actions need to be taken proactively before the next catastrophic blaze ignites like High Park or the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires that scorched more than 32,000 acres, killed four people and destroyed 835 homes in the Pikes Peak region in 2012 and 2013.

Ray Rasker, the executive director of Headwaters Economics, said one big move in the right direction would be to encourage people and developers to build homes away from the Wildland Urban Interface where forests and other undeveloped areas meet populated zones.

Rasker said one of the largest costs associated with fighting fires in the Colorado comes when crews are defending homes. The economist noted that $28 million each year is spent specifically in protecting houses from approaching flames. His organization estimates that by the year 2025, that number will rise to $40 million.

"It's going to get much, much worse," he said if people continue to build in the WUI.

According to Rasker, there are few trends that people can control when it comes to wildfire. He said building homes in the WUI, lessening fire danger with mitigation and reducing costs proactively are a few that can be controlled.

Fire ecologist Bob Gray, who owns R.W. Gray Consulting and has more than 30 years experience in fire science, said money spent by local, state and federal government should go toward fire mitigation efforts rather than fire fighting.

But, Gray said officials tend to dismiss projects before they get up and running unless mitigation in areas of high fire danger are evidently profitable. Gray suggests thinning forests and removing fuels that lay on the forest floor and using them for such things as bio fuels. The British Columbia, Canada resident said projects to build plants that take fuels removed in mitigation work to make dense wood pellets that can be sold for energy production are already underway.

Noah Koerper, a representative of Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennett's office, agreed that mitigation will definitely help reduce costs and help prevent the next big blaze.

Koerper spoke during a panel discussion about "real-world wild fire costs in Colorado." He said over the last 10 years, 40 percent of the U.S. Forest Service's budget in the state has gone toward fire spending. That is up from 13 percent in 2004, Koerper said.

Carol Ekarius, of the Coalition for the Upper South Platte, also spoke on the panel. She compared costs of the Waldo Canyon Fire to the Hayman blaze that burned more than 330,000 acres in the Pike and San Isabel National Forests in 2002.

Ekarius concluded that the Hayman fire cost about $2,000 per acre to fight while the Waldo Canyon blaze in the mountains west of Colorado Springs carried a price tag of more than $30,000 per acre.

According to Koerper, thinning one acre of forest costs about $600.

Ekarius and multiple other speakers also talked about immeasurable costs of wildfire such as emotional effects like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in children who've lost homes. They also talked about costs that are yet to be felt, like long-term effects of flooding and loss of property value.

Twelver years after the Hayman Fire, flash floods and dangerous debris are still pouring out of the burn scar.

"With big fires, there always, always, always comes big floods and big debris flows," Ekarius said.

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