WASHINGTON - Communities that spring up in Colorado's many forests and mountain ranges are sanctuaries for people who are sick of traffic and urban congestion, but they also force firefighters to spend a lot of their thinly stretched resources to protect homes cropping up next to dense, flammable vegetation, experts say.
Colorado has more homes in fire-prone areas than any other state except California and Texas, and this increasing development near wilderness partially explains Uncle Sam's growing fire-suppression costs, experts say.
Suburbia's decades-long encroachment into forests is sparking fresh concern because the blazes are getting bigger, deadlier and costlier to combat due to hot and dry conditions scientists attribute to climate change.
The federal government is spending more to hire additional firefighters and deploy more helicopters, fire trucks, airplanes and other equipment to protect homes in "wildland-urban interfaces," experts say. Those are high-fire-risk regions where homes butt up against chaparral, conifers and other flammable vegetation.
Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics, an independent research group in Bozeman, Mont., said the federal government can't tell developers where to build -- that's up to local governments -- but is obligated to spend whatever it takes to fight wildfires and protect property.
"It is a classic case of a moral hazard, where you have created a risky situation and the risks and the consequences of the behavior are borne by somebody else," he said.
Earlier this month, the Obama administration predicted it will spend as much as $2.4 billion this fiscal year to fight wildfires. That's almost three times more than what it cost a decade ago, Rasker said. Meanwhile, the number of people moving to wilderness communities has also tripled, he said.
With development occurring on only 16 percent of the land in 11 states west of the Dakotas -- a region that experiences the nation's biggest wildfires -- the "problem . . . is about to get many orders of magnitude worse," Rasker said.
The U.S. Forest Service, a unit within the Agriculture Department, and the U.S. Interior Department routinely spend more money than budgeted for fire suppression. The agencies have had to move money from elsewhere in their budgets to pay the costs. So far, Congress has restored that money but President Barack Obama wants a permanent fix.
In his 2015 budget, Obama has proposed allowing the Forest Service and the Interior Department to use a Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster fund to pay to put out the biggest 1 percent of wildfires, which consume 30 percent of Uncle Sam's fire-suppression budget.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack discussed that strategy Tuesday during a visit to the History Colorado Center in Denver.
Another thing the federal government could do is bill counties for their share of the firefighting costs, which would spur local officials to curb housing sprawl, Rasker said.
But costs are going up at the state and local levels, too.
According to the International Association of Wildland Fire, federal, state and local taxpayers together pay about $4.7 billion a year for wildfire suppression.
The costs began rising sharply beginning in 1990 as developers built homes, subdivisions and entire communities on nearly 2 million acres of wilderness a year, the group said. Nationwide, 38,600 homes were destroyed by wildfires in the first 12 years of this century, going from 861 in 2000 to 4,244 in 2012, the group said.
A total of 373,600 homes in Colorado were at "high" or "extreme" risk for wildfires based on 2010 Census data, according to Verisk Insurance Solutions, which conducts risk assessments for the property and casualty insurance industry. Nearly 2 million homes in California and 1.3 million homes in Texas were in a similar situation. Washington (163,400) and Idaho (160,800) made up the top five states with the most homes carrying the highest fire risk.
A study released last year by CoreLogic Inc., a data provider for the real estate and financial industries, showed that 40 percent of the nation's 115 million single-family homes were adjacent to wilderness as of 2008.
CoreLogic's latest findings for Colorado show that 185,698 homes statewide lie within 2,000 feet of vulnerable vegetation. Many, though not all, are at high risk.
Faced with a rising number of claims, insurance companies are encouraging customers to use fire-resistant materials, create vegetation-free zones around their properties and take other steps to protect their homes, according to Brenda O'Connor, a senior vice president with the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety.
Homeowners who choose to move to areas where the fire risk is high could also face bigger premiums than those who build or move to lower-risk areas.
Wilderness communities are never too far from big Western cities because people want to live amid rustic beauty while retaining urban conveniences, said Tom Jeffrey, a CoreLogic researcher.
Jeffrey said even small fires can be exceedingly expensive to put out if homes are nearby. For instance, officials used 20 fire engines, eight Black Hawk helicopters and two airplanes to put out a two-acre fire in Calabasas, Calif., in January at a cost of more than $100,000, Jeffrey said.
"There's an increased effort to hit them early and hit them hard," he said. "If they have a very strong, early response, they can hopefully contain it."
The cost to taxpayers is smaller in remote, uninhabited areas out West, experts say. That's because authorities are likely to let wildfires run their course in the absence of human habitation, but that's not an option when homes are threatened, said Thomas Scott, a natural resources specialist for the University of California system.
"The reality is that if you are trying to rescue people's lives or trying to save people's houses you end up spending an awful amount of money," he said.
The number of wilderness communities rose during the 1987 and 1997 housing booms, Scott said. The trend cooled during the recent recession but appears to be heating up again as the U.S. economy improves, Scott said.
Scott urged local officials to do a better job of directing growth so homes are built in less-risky areas. But local authorities typically give in to powerful real-estate developers and are too afraid of constituents who chafe at elected officials telling them where they can and cannot live, Scott said.
Homes in wilderness communities sometimes "can't be saved in a large conflagration," Scott said. "The question then becomes, can you expect society to underwrite your desire to live in a chaparral?"
Web resources for wildfire safety:
Some things homeowners can do to reduce the wildfire threat:
- Create "defensible spaces" by clearing flammable vegetation from your home's immediate vicinity. That includes live trees and branches but also dry leaves, pine needles and other dead or dying foliage.
- Store firewood and lumber away from your home.
- Use fire-resistant material to build decks, roofs, eaves, gutters, windows and doors, and as insulation.
- Install outdoor sprinkler systems.
(Source: CoreLogic, Inc.)
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