Researcher at Snowmass conference frames why wildfire impact is growing | VailDaily.com

Researcher at Snowmass conference frames why wildfire impact is growing

Jill Beathard
The Aspen Times

Wildfires, such as those currently burning across much of the West, are becoming more destructive as fuels build up and more of the population moves to areas where fire hazards exist, a researcher said Thursday at the Colorado Wildland Fire Conference in Snowmass.

Policies today are still being influenced by historic decisions, such as an early-20th century one to focus U.S. Forest Service funding on fighting fires, said Kathleen Tierney, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and the director of the Natural Hazards Center, during the opening keynote address of the conference. The Forest Service has continued to spend more resources fighting fire than preventing it or performing other tasks such as prescribed burns, and fuels in forests across the country have built up dangerously over the past century.

Meanwhile, a phenomenon called “amenity migration” is occurring, whereby the population is moving toward parts of the country that are attractive to them because of the natural or cultural amenities those areas have to offer, Tierney said. That happens in coastal areas, regions with warm temperatures and mountainous states such as Colorado, where Tierney said 1 in 4 homes, or more than 1 million people, are situated in a wildfire red zone.

Often, people who build homes in the wildland urban interface don’t think about the reality of the vulnerability of their property.

“What are those people not thinking about?” Tierney said. “They really didn’t think about the wildfire hazard and the expense and the effort of managing the wildfire hazard on their property, and maybe their agent didn’t tell them.”

Tierney noted that these factors are making firefighters’ jobs more important and more challenging.

“Now that we have so much development in the (wildland urban interface), fires need to be suppressed,” she said. “At the same time, they’re becoming more difficult to fight, more destructive, and losses are becoming greater.”

When an attendee asked if agencies were “coddling” homeowners who build in vulnerable areas, Tierney opened up the question to the audience and got some interesting responses.

“This is a country built on freedom, and with freedom comes responsibility,” said Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Wilderness Workshop. “This ‘coddling’ gets straight at absolving people of their responsibility. … Are there measures that can hold a homeowner accountable for the choices that they make?”

Ron Biggers, fire marshal of Glenwood Springs Fire Department, said fire services at some point will have to consider whether certain homes aren’t worth the risk.

“The fire people have to decide: Are your crews and your equipment worth putting at risk?” he said. “Are we willing to risk our people … for your home if you haven’t taken the responsibility to take care of it?”

Other fire-service members noted that when they contact homeowners directly, they understand the risk and don’t want firefighters to risk their lives to save their property.

“When you can reach a homeowner one on one, I think our success rate is great,” Snowmass Fire Marshal John Mele said, adding that he is an advocate for discussing risk and mitigation with owners whenever a property changes hands.

Firefighters have a chance this weekend to discuss their challenges with real estate agents, land planners and policy makers who also are in attendance at the conference. Some are even participating in panels, including one today called “The Realtor Perspective.”

“Realtors and developers are part of the solution,” said Doug Paul, a fire mitigation and education specialist with the Bureau of Land Management.

The Colorado Wildland Fire Conference runs through Saturday. The public is invited to attend. For more information or for tickets, visit http://www.wild fire-colorado.com.

jill@snowmasssun.com