The Future of Western Wildfires
This article is part of our four-part series “Forests, Fires, and People,” presented by the Institute for Science and Policy and the Center for Collaborative Conservation, with support from Gates Family Foundation and in partnership with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute, the Southern Rockies Fire Science Network, the Colorado State Forest Service, and the Climate Adaptation Partnership. Find all series episodes on our YouTube channel.
Fires are here to stay, and the complex challenge of managing western forests will require creative, multi-dimensional solutions in the years to come. In our final episode, we’ll be taking the long view, examining lingering barriers as well potential opportunities for collaboration and common ground. The application of the best available science and information will only be a start; lasting change may also require new strategies in policy, regulation, and jurisdiction, not to mention a fresh cultural approach to our relationship with fire. How will mitigation and recovery efforts be funded going forward? How will climate change shape the future? And when it comes to living in the wildland-urban interface, how much risk is too much?
In our final episode of Forests, Fires, and People, Institute Director Kristan Uhlenbrock and Center for Collaborative Conservation Director John Sanderson welcomed Angela Boag, Policy Advisor on Climate Change, Forest Health and Energy for Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources; Tony Cheng, Professor in the Department of Forest & Rangeland Stewardship and Director of the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute at Colorado State University; and Ray Rasker, Co-Founder of Headwaters Economics, for a wide-ranging discussion on numerous aspects of fire management and associated human behaviors going forward.
What is the scope of the problem that we’re trying to solve?
ANGELA BOAG: Aggressive wildfire behavior is causing a real public health crisis in terms of the wildfire smoke, but also a public safety emergency in many western communities. This is happening for several reasons. One, we have had a history of suppressing fires over the 20th century and continuing now. That means that we have dense forests, we have a lot of vegetation, and areas that used to see more frequent fires. And so, there's a lot of fuel that's out there to burn. You also have a warming climate drying things out.
And then the third piece of this three-legged stool is the people. We have people living in fire-prone areas. And not only does it mean that those communities are at risk and those lives are at risk, but it also means that we have more people who can start fires, usually unintentionally. State decision makers are, at the heart of it, most concerned about public safety. We obviously don't want to see people's lives impacted by wildfires, both in terms of directly being impacted, but also through smoke impacts and other impacts on both physical and mental health.
When we think about solutions, we have to develop solutions that really match the scale of this massive problem. Scale is one thing that we'll talk a lot about today. There are a lot of tools in our toolbox, all the way from forest thinning in certain areas to using prescribed fire, to smarter land use codes and smarter building codes and home retrofits to make homes safer. I think our pathway to a solution lies with something that's on a much larger scale than some of the work that has gone on in recent decades, and is much more strategic and coordinated between all the different players who are at the table.
TONY CHENG: Wildfire really is a paradox, from both a public policy perspective and a management approach. A paradox is something that that inherently can’t exist simultaneously. So on the one hand, fires are an important part of our landscapes and our ecosystems that we all enjoy and benefit from in Colorado and across the west. Many parts of the world are dependent on fire.
On the other hand, fire is obviously a destructive force and impacts people very negatively. And that makes for a very ill-defined policy problem. In many places, we actually need more fire. In that same regard, there are places where maybe fire creates a risk and a hazard to the people and the values and the assets and the services that we rely upon. Navigating that is troublesome. Policymakers and managers and communities are kind of left to their own devices about what's the best approach, given that paradox. Do we reintroduce fire? Do we let fires burn? Do we suppress them?
The second thing I'll point out is that there are many jurisdictions. A lot of times, we see on TV - when the smoke is in the air - we see young men and women in yellow shirts and green pants and that’s the federal government. But there are actually many, many organizations and agencies that have roles and responsibilities and authorities over fire management, and because of the fuzziness and the geographic variation, they come at it with their own interpretations.
The best way out of this is through a collaborative approach. Getting those jurisdictions and those actors together and then refining: what is the fire problem for whom and where on the landscape? Then we can actually do that strategic identification of where there might be opportunities to actually bring fire back. Are there areas where we might need to do more mitigating activities?
Everybody has a role in looking at land use planning, building codes, home construction, and defensible space plus more of the forest management tools that that we often see applied, from mechanical thinning, manual cleaning, and prescribed burning. But also managing fire in ways other than just kind of aggressive suppression. It really relies on a much more collaborative multi-scale approach than we've had up to this point.
RAY RASKER: I think Angela and Tony did a really nice job of illustrating the complexity of this issue. This is truly a wicked problem, it's very complex. It's intellectually very interesting to work on because of its complexity, but it's really hard to get a grasp on what the simple solution.
Scale is really important. We have a program to work with communities to help them with land use planning. It's a program that communities apply to, they get accepted, and within one, two, sometimes three years we help them pass land use regulations, building codes, landscape ordinances, steep slope ordinances, that sort of thing. We've worked so far with 75 communities. It's not easy. But from their perspective, the problem they're trying to solve is to keep their houses from going up in flames.
And here's where I see a real opportunity, because the science of home ignition is pretty hopeful actually. It tells us that this is a solvable problem. We've already solved this problem in an urban environment. After the big fires at the turn of the century in Chicago and San Francisco, we passed building codes. And we have a fire department who inspects our buildings and makes sure we're up to code. Or there's penalties if we're not up to code. So we've solved this in an urban setting.
In more rural, fire prone lands, I think we can solve this problem as well. If you look at a post- fire analysis, you'll see some houses burned to the ground and some houses right next door didn't burn. There's a lot to learn from those houses that didn't burn. Again, the complexity of this - some people are working on watershed, some people are working fuel reduction. We're working specifically on helping people pass land use regulations to keep all this from going up in flames. And it's difficult. If you look at the amount of money that this country has spent on suppression, it’s $3.8 billion the last few years. The amount of money that's been spent on mitigation is very, very small by comparison. And the amount of money spent helping communities as well.
We're not saying don't build. But if you're going to build on a fire prone landscape, it has to meet certain conditions of safety. So, for example, requiring the use of flame retardant building materials. We are trying to solve the whole ignition problem. Fire by itself is not a problem. Houses going up in flames is the problem.
Is more mitigation from homeowners helpful?
AB: It's true that if we did not have lives and property at risk, there could be a much more open conversation about allowing fires to burn in cases where they can actually be quite beneficial. To Tony's point about managing wildland fire use, I do want to emphasize my belief that not every home will be protected through home retrofits or through the use of fire resistant materials. It certainly helps a lot. If you own a home in a wildland-urban interface, it's certainly a very smart idea to invest in those home retrofits. But I do want to just make the point that some of the fire behavior that we are seeing now, such as the fires that we witnessed this past fall in Colorado, they're wind driven events. They’re burning extremely aggressively. With those fires, you know, it doesn't really matter what your home is constructed out of. People have to evacuate no matter what. So I just want to make that point.
I do think that home hardening, as we call it, and good land use planning is a critical piece of that conversation that is extremely underinvested in. Frankly, it's also politically challenging to talk about local land use planning and, you know, where we should be building and where we shouldn't, or what we should be doing if we're building in certain places. But I do just also want to make that point that I don't think it's a silver bullet.
TC: The National Institute for Standards and Technology has done a series of post fire forensics, for a number of fires that burned in the late 2000s into the mid 2010s from California and Texas and it also includes the Waldo Canyon fire. And they were able to do a real deep dive using very rigorous methodologies. The National Institute for Standards and Technology is a federal government agency that that sets standards for all kinds of stuff like fire retardant materials for home construction, furniture and those kinds of things. They do a lot of testing of different kinds of stuff. They're really used to deconstructing the mechanisms of what causes a home to burn, given all of these mediating tools that we have: defensible space, class C siding, flameproof roofs, and those kinds of things.
And they found that even in the face of people not taking those measures, those homes did not burn. What explains that? One of the most important mediating variables that they found that made the difference between a home burning is having firefighter resources. Firefighters were stationed at those places and they raked embers away from the siding, they pulled wood stairs away from the front doors. Those things made the difference. That's another equation: having sufficient firefighting resources at the right place at the right time.
Another thing I’ll say about that Waldo Canyon fire report: they estimated that a home caught fire every minute for four six hours. There are not enough firefighters anywhere to be able to engage that many homes on fire during a wildland fire. And so we think this is the challenge. We talk conceptually about living with fire. A lot of academics and a lot of people write about that. But what that means is that at some point, in many ways, it's almost like living in a hurricane or a tornado prone landscape. There’s a certain force of nature beyond which engineering solutions are not going to mitigate against. And, I mean, that's a hard thing to swallow. I live in a floodplain. And we have all kinds of insurance and engineering and all that kind of stuff. But at some point, there's nothing that we can do except for escaping with loved ones and maybe a few precious belongings.
RR: I'd like to add to that. We saw in California, a few years ago, something that alarmed us: home-to-home ignition fires. This is one of the challenges. There's a lot of modeling trying to figure out where the most hazardous places are, trying direct building away from the most hazardous places. But all of those hazard models have not yet included the home as a fuel source. And this is where it's a game changer. Once you get home-to-home ignition, the home is a totally different fuel source. It burns very differently from forest.
The Institute of Business and Home Safety has an interesting set up. They've got a giant warehouse, like an airplane hangar, and they build buildings in there and then subject them to all sorts of climatic problems of high winds and thunderstorms and that sort of thing. And they built homes two ways. One was typical home construction and the other one was the latest technology with flame retardant construction, and then they showered embers and filmed how it burned. One side burned, one side didn’t.
We've worked with them to try and document the price difference between a home built the standard way and then that same home with the latest standards for flame resistant building technology. The price difference was 2%. In other words, the wildfire resistant one was 2% more expensive. So it's not an insurmountable problem to build homes this way. But you're right, with a severe enough fire, there's always going to be something that will ignite in the home. The good news for me, though, is that so many of the things that can be done to reduce the flammability of a home are actually fairly simple things that the homeowner can do.
Should we be building in fire-prone areas at all?
RR: It depends who you ask. Building is a local decision. The planning department can only go as far as its City Commission or the County Commission allows it to go. And if you look at the position that local governments are in, they benefit from increased property taxes. So there's strong pressure to approve good developments.
Of all the communities we've worked with, we've never run into one where they said, we want to stop development in the most dangerous places. It's a nice academic exercise. But politically, we haven't seen it happen yet. There was an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times a couple weeks ago where they said we should disallow development in dangerous places. But those opinions are rare. At the local level, it's very tough politics.
TC: CFRI did some research on this recently and if you look at those places that suffered the most home loss from wildland fires, a lot of them are in areas that you wouldn't necessarily consider. Dense forest. Chaparral. Pine woodlands. There are several fires in Texas that had a lot of home loss that were essentially grasslands, mixed with some Eastern juniper. So, when you look at wildland-urban interface maps across the U.S., a high density of them are in forests and woodlands in the Southeast that are very fire-prone from ignition sources. That’s a political question, and it depends on what you value.
If we think about risk as the likelihood of a bad thing happening, those of us living in the Front Range of Colorado get on I-25 assuming that the accident is not going to happen to us. The risk, the probability every time is a very, very low percentage. We may spend our whole lives being able to drive down I-25 and nothing's going to happen to us. That's another calculation and yet, we have all kinds of benefits by doing so. We make lots of calculations, other than just the probability that a fire may occur and get into our communities.
RR: But, Tony, in your driving example, you do by law have to wear a seatbelt. And the cars are by law built in a way that can resist impact. And you do have speed limits and you do have a police force enforcing those limits. And that's what's lacking in the wildland urban interface. The regulatory structure is lacking.
So, do we need a stronger regulatory structure?
AB: It’s a billion dollar question. It's an incredibly challenging issue, and I should say that the state struggles with land use issues, not just on wildfire, but water and wildlife. Part of my role is thinking about all the carbon stored in our grasslands and forests, and when we develop our natural areas we can lose that carbon sink. And so, land use is a huge challenge in everything that my agency does and many other state agencies and federal agencies do.
Colorado is a local control state. There's a lot of deference to local planning and local authority. It means that the state has to come up with some really juicy incentives to incentivize communities to plan in effective ways to develop building codes that are effective. I think there is a real opportunity for growth here. There's a lot of conversations around resilience, very broadly, to the whole suite of natural disasters that that folks experience in Colorado. And not just natural disasters, but social, health and economic disasters like we've experienced with COVID.
The state legislature is thinking about this, too, and they're looking to revise one of the programs at the state level. It's called - and this is a mouthful - the Forest Restoration and Wildfire Risk Mitigation grant program through the State Forest Service. And I'll just put a quick plug in for it here. It is a program that communities can apply to secure some funding and it does require wildfire mitigation work in their communities. So, that is a state resource that's out there. But in revising that program this year, and giving it additional funding, the state legislature is looking to essentially score projects more highly in terms of giving them funding if they are in communities where the communities have taken it upon themselves to do some smart planning around welfare risk mitigation. So that's just one example of the type of carrot that you can weave in to state policy to encourage communities to address this issue.
TC: There's different ways of thinking about scale. A lot of times, when we talk about forests and fire and doing forest treatments, we talk about scale as a geographic size. But there's scales of action from the individual to the communities to counties to the state to the federal. And we haven't gotten to scale with that kind of integrated approach. Angela mentioned certain policy design innovations here in Colorado. There's a lot of other states that are undergoing similar kind of policy designs, really trying to integrate those scales of action.
This is a classic collective action problem, almost like a social dilemma problem. It's easy to free ride on other people's activities, like, I'm just going to free ride on my local emergency responders and it absolves me from doing wildfire risk management. We have to overcome that free rider problem by starting to line those different scales of action from the private individual all the way up to the federal government.
What other levers might we have at our disposal?
RR: With regards to insurance, the Boulder wildfire partners program is interesting to look at. They partnered with the insurance industry and they do home to home inspections, very detailed home inspections. A homeowner gets a list of what they need to do. They get a certain amount of time to accomplish those tasks. And if they do, then they get a certification. They get a big sign that they can put on their driveway. But they also get reduced rates. And so that's one area where the insurance industry is helping out quite a bit. Tying your rates, and your eligibility, to what the homeowner has done with regards to mitigation.
So that program in Boulder is being replicated now in Montana, the first offshoot in another state to see if it works here. But by and large, people will not decide to build based on insurance. The way it works is, you buy a piece of property, you get a loan, you get an architect, you get a builder, you build your property. And then you sit around the kitchen table and you go, where are we going to get insurance? It's not at the forefront, it's not a yes or no decision. Like nobody has yet said, oh, we're not going to build because we can't find insurance. That hasn't happened. So, we can't hold our breath and think that insurance policies are going to change the pattern of development. But what insurance can do is provide some incentives once the development does occur and what the landowner can do on their property to mitigate their risk.
TC: I think there's folks, especially in the Rocky Mountain Insurance Association, that think about this a lot. One thing that I have heard is - and think about how insurance works - the risk pool draws from very large populations. In the Front Range of Colorado, for example, you have, I don't know, 3 million-odd insurance ratepayers. You might have a catastrophic wildfire event that takes out 300-500 homes. But that is easily absorbed by the 3 million insurance payers.
The largest insurance payout - the largest single natural disaster insurance payout in in Colorado history - was a hailstorm that parked on top of Denver International Airport. That caused billions of dollars of damage to the airport, from the airplanes to all the parked cars to the rental fleets. Home loss from wildfire, from an individual or family perspective, is a catastrophic loss. You'll lose everything. But for the insurance companies, it's a drop in the bucket compared to some other natural hazard losses, at least in places like Colorado.
AB: Yeah, I might jump in here and switch gears a little bit. I think Tony put it well that this is a collective action problem and it's a problem that needs to be addressed at various jurisdictional levels. At the community scale, I just want to make the point that local funding solutions can be a really great direction to go. If, for instance, your town or county can pass just a small increase to property taxes or a sales tax - especially if you can generate a lot of that sales tax off of tourists coming to visit - those funds can then be used to leverage state and federal funds to conduct some of these bigger treatments like prescribed fire for forest management projects. So I think that's just another leverage point in the funding conversation. The funding that's needed is massive, but it's not all going to come from the feds. It's not all going to come from states. It has to come from local communities as well.
What are the costs associated with mitigation?
AB: To ideally reduce risk in some of our fire prone areas in Colorado alone it's been estimated to be over $750 million, and several billion dollars if you're talking about restoring forests across Colorado. But if we just think about that 750 million number, that's sort of the ballpark that you have to start thinking about in terms of the combination of both local funding sources with state funding sources and then also looking to our federal partners to work with the state, and invest in those places, y
And I'll be the first to say that that combination of funds is nowhere close to what it needs to be to really address the size of the problem. I think everyone agrees, you should never let a catastrophe go to waste. The 2020 wildfires really focused people and people might say it's a bit cynical that politicians only focus on these issues when the emergency occurs. But it can lead to real change. The forest restoration risk mitigation program I talked about earlier - historically, that's only been funded by the state at around a million dollars per year. That's a tiny drop in the bucket compared to the need.
This session, there’s been legislation introduced to almost increase that by ten times, which would be funding that's ongoing in future years. And so again, that's still a drop in the bucket compared to the need, but thinking about increasing the order of magnitude of our investments is the right way to think about this. Once you've opened that door to that conversation around increasing by an order of magnitude at all levels of government, then I think you can start having conversations about the scale of investment that's really needed to address this challenge.
What are some ways to educate and empower communities?
RR: There's a lot of programs like the Firewise program that will tell you what to do around your property and then I have a lot of great suggestions. But I think supporting your local elected officials in their efforts to use land use planning tools is probably something that's lacking. They would appreciate it if you stepped up and said yes, this community is ready for some type of a regulatory approach to deal with wildfire mitigation. Your local elected officials need your support and speak up and help them out with that.
TC: A lot of places here in Colorado and across many states have different kinds of coalitions, either watershed coalition, water councils, or forest health collaborative groups and partnerships. Along the Colorado Front Range, there's probably like eight or ten of them. And those are typically voluntary. A lot of them are really focused now on this kind of nexus between forests and fire and land and recreation and the impact of forest fires on water supplies and watersheds. And that's just a great way to keep apprised of information. And if you're so inclined, start attending meetings, getting on mailing lists, and just try to figure out what's happening in your own backyard.
AB: I think one thing that everybody can do is to really stay curious about this issue. I'm so glad to see how many people are on the call today. Stay curious about it. Keep reading. Keep learning. Keep attending sessions like this, because I think this message about the fact that wildfire is a natural part of our ecosystems in the West is important. We're going to always have fire.
Unfortunately, with climate change, we're likely going to continue having much more of it. And I think that is something that folks living in the West really internalize the fact that fire can be good, whether that is our natural fires burning as they should, or prescribed fire back on the ground in a more controlled way in the places where it can be beneficial. That's something that we should all take some time to think about and learn from. And, you know, talk to your neighbors about the fact that not all fire is bad all the time, and that our ecosystems are adapted to it. That's part of the solution here. Reach out to your decision makers, whether they're folks in your county, in your town, or making decisions about this. If it's your state legislators, or your representatives at the federal level, let them know that this is an important issue to you, that you think it requires investment, that you think it requires creative policymaking.
The Institute for Science & Policy is committed to publishing diverse perspectives in order to advance civil discourse and productive dialogue. Views expressed by contributors do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, or its affiliates.