Letters From the West

Colorado’s Hickenlooper says homeowners should pay costs of living in the wild

Todd Crist stands near the remains of his cabin in the Fall Creek area of Elmore County, Idaho, which was destroyed by the Elk Complex fire on August 10th. Thirty eight residences and 43 outbuildings in the Fall Creek area were destroyed by the Elk Complex of fires earlier this month. Wednesday August 28, 2013 KYLE GREEN — kgreen@idahostatesman.com

Todd Crist stands near the remains of his cabin in the Fall Creek area, which was destroyed by the Elk Complex fire on August 10th. Thirty eight residences and 43 outbuildings in the Fall Creek area were destroyed.  KYLE GREEN — kgreen@idahostatesman.com

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper unveiled a plan to reduce the impact of wild fires in his state that recognizes that these huge natural events are human-caused disasters.

Hickenlooper recommended his Legislature pass laws that makes people who build in the forests pay their own way; create a 1-to-10 scale of wildfire risk in burn zones; and tell insurers how all homes rank. Finally he called for adding to the state building code rules for constructing with fire-resistant materials and providing defensible space.

Read more here: http://www.idahostatesman.com/2013/10/07/2802422/colorado-governor-urges-homeowners.html#storylink=cpy

Last year, the Waldo Canyon Fire near Colorado Springs destroyed 345 homes. Twelve miles away, nearly 500 homes were destroyed in the Black Forest Fire this year and two people died.

Of course this is not just a Colorado problem. The 1,024-acre Charlotte Fire burned 66 homes and 29 outbuildings on the edge of Pocatello in 2012, the worst fire effects in Idaho since 1910. This year, 38 homes were destroyed in the Fall Creek area near Pine in an area firefighters call “no man’s land,” because of the lack of local fire protection, and that Gov. Butch Otter described as “almost indefensible.”

The Arizona Republic reported Tuesday that Yarnell, Ariz didn’t clear away brush even though it had the money from the federal government to do it.  Nineteen firefighters died trying to save the town that wasn’t willing to take steps to protect itself.

Hickenlooper is saying that homeowners have to take responsibility for their own property. In the words of Boise State University Political Science professor, John Freemuth, speaking in the voice of  Smokey the Bear: “Only you can protect your home from wild fire.”

This very libertarian viewpoint has often been skewed in the West by the idea that these fires are due to poor management of the public lands that attracts people to live in these places. Whatever impact public lands management has had, the drier, warmer climate that has dramatically increased the size of fire over the last 25 years has made living in the woods and next to flammable range land like living in a flood plain or a hurricane zone.

People who have built into these areas before never dreamed that the wind-driven conflagrations like the Elk Complex would race through their lives. But now, after fires in the Boise foothills in 1996, along the Oregon Trail in Columbia Village in 2008, north of McCall in 1994 and 2007, in Ketchum and Hailey in 2007 and this year, and Pine in 2012 and 2013, we know what’s coming.

Hickenlooper’s recommendations come directly from a report by his Wildfire Insurance and Forest Health Task Force. It also recommended that state environmental regulators give more flexibility on air quality rules for prescribed burning to reduce fuels in the lands around communities.

The task force imagined a system where especially indefensible homes are listed as a 10, which would make them very hard to sell and make insurance expensive. Homeowners could make their homes safer by adding a fire resistant roof and clearing defensible space around it for firefighters and then get an audit that could lower the risk number.

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter and U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson both expressed support for informing insurance companies of the risks from wild fire. But Otter said he could not support telling homeowners in Fall Creek they can’t rebuild.

Hickenlooper’s plan seems to fit within Otter’s stated boundaries and its basis of personal responsibility meets his own ideology. We’ll see what Colorado’s lawmakers say.

And we will see if it takes another human disaster like the Black Forest, Waldo Canyon, Charlotte and Elk Complex fires to get action.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West