Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Should Black Forest Homes Be Rebuilt? Probably Not

A house is fully engulfed by the Black Forest Fire. The Black Forest fire, after burning up 24 square miles, leaving two dead and destroying over 500 homes, is now nearly out for good. It is easily the most disastrous fire in the state's history, having consumed nearly $800m in property (estimated) and exacted fire fighting resource costs of nearly $36 million, according to the Denver Post (June 16).  Of course, watchful waiting is still needed, as fire fighters still can't relax but must move through and across the scorched forest grounds digging up to six inches deep to excavate still burning embers and pine cones beneath. Even a single spark then can start a new conflagration, if precautions aren't taken, especially as "fire weather" resumes tomorrow with temperatures in the 90s and low humidity, winds.

Meanwhile, the families affected hanker to get back and re-build their homes, yes, in the same Black Forest. Is this a good idea? No, I don't believe so for reasons I will get into.  But recall, this is one year after the Waldo Canyon fire which also blew out of a forested area last year and took 346 homes with it, at a cost of rebuiliding at nearly $450 million. That's nearly a half billion dollars.

Are we now to see these damned fires every year? Yes, according to Prof. Frederick 'Skip' Smith, of Colorado State University and head of the Warner College of Natural Resources Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship. According to Prof. Smith, these annual fires are now the "new normal:". Persistent drought conditions, combined with the ravages of the mountain pine beetle (turning forests into tinder) have made the likelihood of destruction by wild fires a near certainty and yes, every year! Worse, people are contributing to the mayhem by deliberately moving into forested areas that themselves are becoming increasingly overgrown.

To highlight this, Colorado state district forester Larry Long - quoted in the Post article (p. 21A) and noting a fire in the densely wooded Black Forest had long been feared:

"They need to take about half of the trees out and then come back and take another third out. It would be a stark contrast to what it is now. But that is a healthy forest. It looks very nice, it gets park like."

The implication clearly is that no one ought to be rebuilding until such time the forest is thinned out.

Beyond that, no home - not one - ought to be built until every last bit of burnt, dried tinder left behind is removed, every last charcoaled tree stump. Moreover,  each new home needs to be re-designed with fire-mitigation structures, techniques in mind.  Same ol', same ol' cannot work ....not any more, and it is supreme stupidity to allow people to just rebuild according to original specs.

As Smith said:

"It's going to mean we are going to have to do a better job of designing these communities and making them defensible in the face of the certainty that these fires are going to happen."

That includes building homes that don't ignite as easily, having infrastructure in place for fire fighters and having escape routes for homeowners as well as fire mitigation plans integrated into all future building codes.

This is extemeley important given over 540,000 Coloradans currently inhabit forested danger areas and that growth in the wildland-urban interface is expected to increase 300 percent in the next two decades, according to Joe Duda - the state's interim forester.

Prof. Smith himself isn't enamored of any more building-construction of homes in these fire prone areas. As he put it (Ibid.):

"We're not going to be able to live with it. The costs are too great. The amount of money we spend for fire suppression is huge and not sustainable. And continuing to put young people at risk to fight fires is not something we want to do."

Bingo!  Additionally, as noted in today's Post (p. 1A), insurance specialists have observed that the premiums paid by home owners living in forested areas don't reflect the risks - so they will undoubtedly have to go up. This should be no different from what happened to those living in the Hurricane Charlie storm zone on Florida's SW coast in 2004. In particular, after Charlie damaged my folks' place in Port Charlotte their insurance premiums shot up 75%. The new premiums were so high that they had to move into a senior apartment complex.  They hated to leave their home of 22 years, but at the same time were relieved to be away from having full responsibility for a hurricane-prone domecile.

In addition to higher premiums, a task force appointed by Gov. John Hickenlooper is looking into the implementation of yearly 'risk' fees such as apply currently in California. There, home owners in wooded risk areas pay $150 each per year for fire protection services that may be used. The total collected last year came in at $90 million which provided enough to fight CA wildfires this year. People are simply going to have to get used to paying for the privilege of living in these isolated, wooded areas. To quote one letter writer in today's Post:

"A tragedy befell those folks who moved out in the woods — perhaps to get away from it all — under the illusion that they are independent of the rest of the world. In fact, they moved all their material stuff to a naturally fragile environment, now under severe stress due to a number of factors, the most prominent being massive climate change. Anyone who lives in such an area needs to understand that they are placing themselves literally in the line of fire while their own presence further damages a suffering ecosystem of plants and animals. " - Linda J. Drake

Meanwhile, the origin of the fire is now suspected as arson, and investigators are going through the scene where it putatively started to ferret out clues. Whoever did this, well...they merit the ultimate penalty.

No comments: