What is the True Cost of Wildfires to Our Communities?
Authors: Molly Mowery
This topic was explored last week by a diverse group of practitioners from across Colorado at the “Colorado Wildland Fire Conference: The True Cost of Wildfire.” Experts, local policymakers, land use planners, emergency managers, wildland fire fighters and other professionals from local and national organizations convened in Glenwood Springs to learn and share information related to the wide-ranging impacts of wildfires on our communities. Case studies from across the state and elsewhere highlighted the long-lasting and costly impacts associated with wildfire incidents, many of which we don’t consider in our assessments of damage: post-fire flooding and watershed debris cleanup, post-traumatic stress disorder and related mental health issues, long-term population displacement, air quality impacts to human health, habitat loss and lost tourism dollars or other revenue impacts. The conference highlighted that although we lack a consistent way to measure and track these impacts, it’s important to understand that a “do-nothing” approach leaves us far less prepared than if we take active steps to prepare for and mitigate wildfire risk to our communities.
Emphasizing this proactive approach, the conference sessions also focused on a number of solution-oriented topics. Fire adapted communities (FAC) was the first topic discussed during the second day general session. Speakers shared national, state and local perspectives on FAC resources and activities. Audience members had the opportunity to learn about the FAC Learning Network. It was fortuitous that representatives from each of the current and new hub organizations in Colorado – Coalition for the Upper South Platte, Summit County Wildfire Council and FireWise of Southwest Colorado – were all in attendance. The FAC session also featured the Colorado State Forest Service’s FAC toolkit of resources. The Colorado Springs Fire Department provided an overview of recovery and wildfire mitigation activities since the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire, including the update to their Wildland Urban Interface ordinance and the development of their new Hillside Wildfire Mitigation Design Manual – a user-friendly building construction and landscaping guide to help homeowners improve the odds of their home surviving a wildfire event with little or no fire fighter intervention.
Breakout sessions went in-depth on topics such as Community Wildfire Protection Plans, land use planning for wildfire risk reduction, Home Ignition Zone concepts and fire-resistant construction, and lessons learned from Colorado successes.
Overall, the conference stressed the important role of county commissioners, land use planners and other policymakers who may not have traditionally been included in decisions related to community wildfire risk reduction. These audience members were well represented thanks to outreach efforts by a diverse group of conference organizers and sponsors. Additional media coverage and thought provoking speaker insights can be found online at Aspen Public Radio, The Daily Sentinel and Post Independent.