Wildfires: Preparation vs. Recovery

When a wildfire ripped through the Fourmile Canyon on the Rocky Mountain Front Range just north of Boulder in 2010, 168 homes were destroyed, a number greater than any other wildfire in Colorado’s history. The final cost of retardants used to put out the fire was more than $300,000.

While many of the 168 who lost their homes were devastated, it is those with homes that survived who may now find themselves in even more financial distress.

“In a way, I was lucky my house burned down,” said Rod Moraga, co-founder of the fire-management consulting group, Anchor Point.

Moraga, whose house burned down in the fire, says that the value of homes in the area nearby a recent wildfire will decrease for years to come.

According to Moraga, the people who didn’t lose their homes are now more concerned than ever about wildfires, but have absolutely no one to sell their homes to. For now, they must spend money on thinning trees around their home and dealing with insurance claims for any damage that may have been done during the fire including smoke damage.

Wildfires are necessary for regeneration and growth among tree species and contribute to the overall health of forests by thinning the canopies so sunlight can reach other plants as well. Unfortunately, their potential to invade the Wildland Urban Interface, the area where human development meets undeveloped wildland vegetation, is a recipe for disaster.

While Moraga lost his home in a wildfire, Wade Ward lost 19 friends and co-workers.

Ward, a fire mitigation specialist for the Arizona Public Service Electric Company, was the Public Information Officer for the Prescott Fire Department after the Yarnell Hill Fire in the summer of 2013. After a lightning strike ignited the wildfire, a dramatic change of winds led to tragedy and 19 of Arizona’s Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed trying to escape the out-of-control fire.

Ward hopes that tragedies like this don’t have to keep happening for people to understand the importance of managing fuels, flammable materials either living or dead, ahead of time so there aren’t such catastrophic fires.

Why people aren’t doing it is beyond me,” Ward said. “The risk is there, it’s just a matter of time.”

In the wake of a devastating wildfire, many people experience a false sense of security assuming that it won’t happen again in their lifetime. According to Ward, it takes at least 18 months after a large-scale fire for people to even consider the need to prepare.

Fires are burning faster, drier, and hotter in comparison to how they burned just 100 years ago. In 2015, more acres were burned across the country than any year in recorded history. Knowing this, people living in fire-prone areas need to plan accordingly.

Some techniques for fuel management include prescribed burns, controlled burns that help reduce fuel build-up in hopes of preventing more serious wildfires, and also the thinning of trees around the home. Simpler preparations include clearing out discarded wood and building materials lying around, cleaning gutters of excess leaves and needles that could catch on fire, and shutting every window when leaving the home.

While homeowners are responsible for preparing their own properties in case of a wildfire, the question becomes who is responsible for the safety of the community and the economic stability of those living in wildfire-prone areas?

According to Moraga, too much responsibility is being placed on fire departments for coming in and fixing a problem that is created by not being prepared.

“The attitude in my fire district was, ‘We’ve got a fire department, they’ll put out the fire,” Moraga said. “And that’s as much thought as people give to your fire department.”

Experts like Ward believe the overall cost of preparing homes for wildfires can be less than the cost of dealing with the aftermath and is significantly less than the amount communities spend on other necessities.

“The cost of suppression is not nearly what it costs the community as a whole from infrastructure to tourism to all of this other stuff,” Ward said.

One of the biggest challenges that Ward and many other fire-management experts face is packaging together this information in an easily understandable way and disseminating it among communities so they’re aware of the potential for future disasters.

Proper precautions need to be taken to ensure homeowners protect their investments and their safety as well as that of their neighbors if opting to inch closer and closer to the unpredictable wilderness. If these proper precautions are taken, it just may save both homeowners and firefighters more money in the end.

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