Rocky Barker: Colorado governor urges that homeowners pay for fires

Idaho StatesmanOctober 7, 2013 

Hundreds of homes were considered a total loss in the wildfires near Colorado Springs, Colo., June, 17, 2013.

CAROL LAWRENCE — The Colorado Springs Gazette

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper unveiled a plan to reduce the impact of wildfires 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.

Last year, the Waldo Canyon Fire near Colorado Springs destroyed 345 homes.

This year, 12 miles away, nearly 500 homes were destroyed in the Black Forest Fire 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 loss in Idaho since 1910. This year, 38 homes were destroyed in the Fall Creek area near Pine in an area firefighters call a “no man’s land” because of the lack of local fire protection. Gov. Butch Otter described the area as “almost indefensible.”

The Arizona Republic reported last week 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 a 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 wildfire.”

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

People who have built in these areas before never dreamed that the wind-driven conflagrations like the Elk Complex fires would race through their lives. But now, after fires in the Boise Foothills in 1996, the Oregon Trail Fire in Boise’s Columbia Village in 2008, north of McCall in 1994 and 2007, in Ketchum and Hailey in 2007 and this year, and in 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 recommended that state environmental regulators give more flexibility on air quality rules to permit more prescribed burning to reduce fuels in the lands around communities.

The task force imagined a system where especially risky and indefensible homes are listed as a 10, which would make them very hard for owners to sell and expensive to insure. Homeowners could make their homes safer by adding a fire-resistant roof and clearing defensible space around it for firefighters. They could 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 that they simply can’t rebuild.

Hickenlooper’s plan seems to fit within Otter’s stated boundaries, and emphasis on 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: 377-6484

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