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By Muriel Eason
Special to The SUN
With wildfire in southwest Colorado making national headlines this week, the danger posed by wildfire is likely top-of-mind with everyone.
It is timely that the featured speaker at the next public Community Development Corporation meeting is J.R. Ford, who will speak about a local renewable energy-generation project, and about fire mitigation in our local forests.
The meeting will be held at 5:30 p.m. Monday, July 1, at the Pagosa Lakes Property Owners Association Vista Conference Room, 230 Port Ave.
According to a report just released by Headwaters Economics of Bozeman, Mont., wildfires are more prevalent, larger and more expensive than in the recent past. According to the report, the six worst fire seasons since 1960 have occurred since 2000. Bigger wildfires are generally the result of two factors.
• The level of biomass fuels have increased, due to land management practices, overgrazing that reduced grass cover and encouraged seedling growth, logging of the large pines that led to a less fire-tolerant understory and aggressive fire suppression that eliminated the natural, low-intensity fires that naturally reduce biomass levels and maintain healthy forests.
• Changing climatic conditions: higher temperatures, widespread drought, earlier snowmelt and spring foliage growth, and escalating insect and disease infestations.
Federal wildfire protection costs have risen substantially — by a factor of three — from $1billion annually in the 1990s to $3 billion since 2002. Wildfire protection now accounts for nearly half of the Forest Service’s annual budget, and more than 10 percent of the budget for all Department of the Interior agencies. These figures do not include the $1 billion-$2 billion spent by states and local governments.
The cost increase is partly due to more homes being built in and near forests and other wildlands that are at risk from wildfires — the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) — because special efforts are made to protect individual homes, which diverts fire control resources from wildlands, increasing resource damage from wildfires. According to the Headwaters report, “The increased fire control costs affect other Forest Service programs as well. The agency often must divert funds appropriated for other purposes (such as) treatments that are needed to reduce the fuels that have accumulated in many non-WUI areas.”
And wildfire threat and protection costs are likely to rise because of climate change and continued WUI home development.
A research report, by Headwaters Economics, specifically for Archuleta County, confirms that the majority of local WUI is still undeveloped — nearly 90 percent as of 2012. Archuleta County was ranked seventh in the state for growth potential in the WUI.
When the national and local economy pick up, new development will likely resume. Will we proactively consider wildfire in our planning, zoning and approval reviews for new development? To avoid wildfire costs and impacts, local governments can take responsibility for sensible WUI development using zoning ordinances, building codes, set-back requirements and more. Additional actions could include mapping water sources and access routes and the increased development and dissemination of information for wildfire protection, such as increasing the use of Firewise.