Colorado Balks at Adopting California's Wildfire Policies. That's Not Good

A helicopter drops water on the Waldo Fire in Colorado on June 27, 2012.
A helicopter drops water on the Waldo Fire in Colorado on June 27, 2012. | Photo: Official U.S. Air Force/Flickr/Creative Commons License

California and Colorado may be quite different places, but they share this in common: fire.

Each state has experienced massive wildfires across time. Each contains fire-adapted ecosystems. Each has large numbers of people living in fire zones. Each currently is locked into an lengthening fire season and, relatedly, an extended drought. And each therefore goes through the same drill every fire season.

When flames erupt in the Sierra or Rockies, the Coastal or Front Ranges, as the smoke-choking, thunderous roar reminds those downwind of a runaway locomotive, residents who live in its rumbling path flee (if they are smart). Racing to fill the void are the first responders, local and county fire departments, state and federal agencies, brave souls putting themselves into the line of fire to defend the oft-indefensible.

About the politics of fire, however, the Golden State appears to be a good deal more proactive than the Centennial.

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As result of a series of explosive firestorms since the start of the new century, the California legislature instituted a special tax on people inhabiting fire-prone foothills, canyons, uplands; the accumulated funds help underwrite CalFire's extensive educational programs in fire-prevention and in turn incentivize the creation of more defensible space around individual homes, neighborhoods, and communities.

Municipalities and counties have reinforced these strategies by enacting building codes that require new structures to meet tougher flame-retardant standards. These regulations include the kinds of materials used to construct porches and roofs, spots that can make a house particularly vulnerable to wildfire (no more cedar shakes, no more protruding eaves).

Underlying these and other regulatory responses is a simple calculation and a forceful message. Those who choose to live in the so-called wildland-urban interface should pay a premium for so choosing. The private sector exacts its price in the form of higher insurance rates and the public sector does so through code-required upgrades and a slight increase in taxation rates. The prevailing ethos is that if we are going to demand that firefighters save our property, we ought to give them (and ourselves) a fighting chance.

This safety-first approach is not the conclusion that the Colorado legislature reached last week when it failed to replicate the reach of California's laws.

Since 2000, Colorado has also endured a series of punishing conflagrations that have blackened hundreds of homes and torched more than 900,000 acres. In the ashen aftermath of this past summer's blazes, Governor John Hickenlooper convened an 18-member Wildfire Insurance and Forest Health Task Force to produce a series of recommendations to make the state more fire-safe.

Its straightforward conclusions, released last September, were a model of its kind, reflecting what the governor said was "Colorado taking steps to address a Colorado problem."

Setting aside Hickenlooper's narrow, CO-centric vision -- all western states are trying to confront these shared issues -- his task force developed some impressive, logical, and commonsensical solutions to a very difficult set of interrelated problems. Among its proposals was the creation of a special state tax or fee for those residing in the burn zones. It proposed as well the establishment of state-wide building codes compelling contractors to utilize fire-resistant materials, requiring homeowners to build and maintain defensible space their property, and, most intriguingly, developing a wildfire-risk rating system.

Under this latter provision, each of the state's more that 500,000 homes sited in the wildland-urban interface would be assessed according to a one-to-ten scale for its risk of catching fire; each house's rating would have to be disclosed to any and all potential buyers. These ideas were consistent with the task force's central concern: how to insure that homeowners took on their fair-share of responsibility for protecting against wildfire.

The task force's smart recommendations apparently were too smart, too constructive for the state legislature. None of the dozen measures that have been written in response to the task force's work adopted its suggestions in full measure. As the Denver Post's Kurtis Lee put it: "this legislative session so far have avoided big-fix measures in favor of smaller, more piecemeal approaches."

Among the incremental bills were those that would offer tax credits to residents who cleared defensible space and to counties limiting ranchers' use of fire to clear their acreage. None included the tough-love rating system and none contained compulsory fees or taxes. It's not that the elected officials misread or misunderstood the task force's words or its intent. Sen. Matt Jones, D-Louisville, a member of the interim Wildfire Matters Review committee, told the Post that its members "considered" these more rigorous stipulations, but at the end of the day "no one thought about moving anything forward."

They had considerable help in failing to act. The state's powerful real-estate and construction industries, which are predicted to develop and market double the houses in the mountains and foothills over the next two decades, exerted heavy pressure on the committee even as the report of the Governor's task force was being written. In September, for instance, the Colorado Association of Home Builders blasted the proposal to create a wildfire-risk rating system: "When you put a number 10 on a house, it can change the game. In a lot of cases, it could make property un-sellable," asserted Amie Mayhew, a task-force member and head of the association, an assertion that was seconded by the Colorado Association of Realtors.

Rather than call the obvious questions -- if house is so unsellable because it is so dangerously located, should it have been built in the first place? Once constructed, should the state become a party to, and pay for, its extreme vulnerability? -- Colorado legislators instead capitulated to these powers that be.

The implication is that the state now sanctions and prioritizes profit over firefighter safety. The pecuniary needs of these potent special interests have a greater claim over the State House than the health and welfare of the citizenry. That skewed political calculation may well have serious consequences whenever the next swirling inferno races downslope, incinerating everything in its path.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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