Glenwood Conference: Fire Officials Look At "True Costs" Of Wildfire

Apr 18, 2014

The West Fork Fire Complex burned over 100,000 acres near Creede, Colorado last summer. The wildfire didn't burn homes but drove away tourism business.
Credit KSUT.org

The story of wildfire in the west is increasingly bleak. Fires are bigger, the wildfire season’s longer, and homes are increasingly built on lands at risk to fire. That’s the situation surrounding a wildfire conference in Glenwood Springs this week. Firefighters, elected officials and government workers met to try and find solutions. As Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports, one idea is to expand biomass production.

Leaders from Pitkin and Moffat Counties to Boulder and Breckenridge mixed with academics and fire ecologists at the two-day conference. Glenwood Springs Deputy Fire Marshal Ron Biggers helped organize it. The goal, he says, is to educate policy makers.

"Because if we’re going to turn the corner and develop some more Firewise, Fire adapted communities, eventually we have to get the policy-makers to buy into that concept," he says.

The six worst fire seasons in 40 years happened relatively recently in the U-S: since 2000. Bigger fires are generally due to an increasing amount of fuels in forests and a changing climate. The price tag for fighting fires has also risen. Since 2002, the average bill for federal wildfire protection and suppression is $3 billion per year. It’s jumped up from a $1 billion annual cost in the 1990’s.

Last June, Eric Grossman saw first-hand how an enormous wildfire can affect a community. He’s the mayor of Creede, in rural southwest Colorado.

"On the day that the fire blew up, it was 90 degree temperatures, at 9000 feet, single digit humidaties and the wind was 30 miles per hour."

Lightning strikes ignited the West Fork fire complex. It didn’t burn homes, but scorched more than 109,000 acres and drove away nearly all of the area’s tourists.

"Creede and Mineral County’s economy is tourism but we’re a three/four month economy and once that fire started, everybody left, and rightfully so, but the problem was, they didn’t come back," Grossman says.

Creede lost nearly all of its summer business and, Grossman was forced to close his cafe.

While costs for suppression and protection of homes is tallied each year, it’s harder to quantify a fire’s toll on things like tourism and other indirect, long-term costs such as mental health, water quality and property values. But, in one case study in New Mexico, these costs accounted for the large majority of a wildfire’s overall “true” cost.

As the bills add up, Fire Ecologist Bob Gray says one solution is to accelerate the pace of forest thinning and increase production of biomass.

"We have hundreds of millions of acres of western forests and woodlands in need of treatment, we just have to find some way to deal with it."

Right now, there’s no incentive to clear these forests because the most vulnerable, often diseased, trees aren’t worth anything to sawmills and builders.

"I’ve tried backwards, forwards, upside, downside, to try and solve this fuels problem and this is the only thing that I can see that’s actually going to work. (There are) millions of tons of biomass available to the bio-energy sector."

The Department of Energy estimates there’s 9 billion tons of biomass in the Wildland Urban Interface on federal lands in the western U.S. Gray says there’s growing global demand for biomass, the industry just needs further development. Colorado’s first biomass plant opened in Gypsum in December.

Several other solutions were proposed, such as controlling where homes are built so that they’re not constructed in risky fire areas. And, continuing “Firewise” education for homeowners such as clearing roofs and gutters of dead leaves and removing firewood piles. The conference wrapped up Thursday.