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'Can we expect more fire seasons like this? Yes, absolutely': Fires could impact where and how people live in Colorado

As fires destroy homes in this state, many will still rebuild in the same areas, but one expert says we need to rebuild smarter.

COLORADO, USA — Colorado is on fire.

The 2020 fire season has been one of the most destructive and longest fire seasons in Colorado history. While there are many factors that may be contributing to this, experts say wildfires will impact where people live in our state and how new homes are built.

Over the past couple of months, we’ve been covered in smoke, watched homes burn and wondered what made this fire season so bad.

"This summer we’ve essentially been choking on a piece of climate change because our fires have been so big and so intense over very long periods of time," said Jennifer Balch, the director of Earth Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder. "Can we expect more fire seasons like this? Yes, absolutely. That’s what our predictions show."

As fires destroy homes, many will rebuild in the same areas. Balch says we need to rebuild smarter.

"We will continue to put homes in harm's way, but we better do it in a smarter way because otherwise, we are just setting ourselves up to increase the risk to lives and homes," said Balch. "Why don’t we use road networks as fire breaks around our neighborhoods? Why don’t we reduce the fuels and trees around our homes that are flammable?"

She offers up some suggestions that could help limit wildfires in heavily populated areas and help contain the growth of large blazes. Balch said that if we focus on rebuilding in a more fire-wise way, people can live more sustainably and safely in Colorado without having to worry as much about large wildfires. That includes where neighborhoods are built and how they're designed. 

"We have flood plane maps, but why don’t we have fire escape maps that help to better direct development and insurance decisions," Balch said. "We can build homes that are more fire-resistant. It costs the same today to build a fire-resistant home as it does to build one that’s more traditional."

The top three largest fires in the history of Colorado happened in 2020: the Cameron Peak Fire, the East Troublesome Fire and the Pine Gulch Fire. They’ve also been destructive, burning hundreds of homes as we continue to build new houses in areas of high fire danger.

The Hayman Fire in 2002 destroyed 600 structures including homes, sheds, and barns. In the Black Forest Fire of 2013, 533 buildings were lost.

And more than 300 structures burned in both the High Park and Waldo Canyon fires.

We won't know where Cameron Peak and East Troublesome will land on this list until firefighters can reach some of the burned areas, though they fear hundreds of homes are lost. 

"A lot of very densely packed together ponderosa pines essentially to me looks like a giant set of candlesticks waiting to burn," said Balch. 

Carole Walker is an insurance industry expert with the Rocky Mountain Insurance Association. She says homeowners could be forced to pay more to insure their properties.

"We know that Colorado has more than half of its population living in high-risk wildfire area. Those are homes that need to be insured," said Walker. "With this escalating risk and these devastating wildfires, insurance is still available and affordable in Colorado, but you will likely pay more for it because you are in a high-risk area."

Insurance companies now also want to make sure people are doing what they can to mitigate fire risk. Often times that will help someone get insured while living in a high-risk fire area. 

"Really after the Hayman Fire in Colorado is when insurance companies started taking a hard look at what they can insure and what the risk is," said Walker. "We know wildfire is still one of those risks, the research tells us, that we can put the odds in our favor if they take those steps to protect their property. That’s why insurance is so contingent on mitigation steps."

While wildfires can be deadly and extremely destructive, they are not the most expensive risk insurance companies see in Colorado. Hail storms can cause even more damage.

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