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August 06, 2023

US wildfires multiply, losses mount – and search for solutions heats up

The number and frequency of wildfires has become one of the greatest challenges in the western U.S. and Canada, impacting wildlife, recreation, water resources and more, according to a policy adviser for the Colorado State Forest Service.

“We used to talk about fire seasons, now we talk about the fire year,” said Angela Boag, assistant director for Climate, Forest Health and Energy for the Department of Natural Resources. Boag discussed wildfire resiliency at a program sponsored by the Section of State and Local Government Law at the ABA Annual Meeting in Denver.

Wildfires have become a hot-button issue in the Colorado legislature and have gotten more attention over the years, Boag said. Years ago, the Department of Resources had to fight for $1 million for wildfire mitigation programs. All that changed in 2020 when the state experienced three of its largest wildfires on record.

“It was a watershed moment that shifted the focus of the state legislature,” Boag said. Investment in wildfire mitigation has quadrupled since 2020 to more than $130 million.

Then came the Marshall Fire in winter 2021, which was unprecedented — hurricane-force winds fanned the grass fire that burned more than 1,400 homes and claimed lives. People had never imagined anything like it happening, Boag said.

While climate change has contributed to the increase of wildfires, Boag said humans are the ignition source. People start about 90% of fires that damage property. “Human ignition needs to be a focus. Reduce human ignition and you reduce the number of wildfires.”

Colorado has a mixed history with prescribed fires, which is a planned fire used to meet a forest management objective. Some people have supported the process as the way to go to help control fires on public lands, Boag said. But prescribed fires have also created a “culture of fear” after one in 2012 was reignited by winds, destroying homes and killing three people. State leadership stopped them, calling them too risky.

To solve the wildfires issue, Boag called for a collaboration among stakeholders, which include state and local governments and insurers. “You have to start with everyone in the room accepting that fires are everybody’s problem,” she said. Once everyone accepts that, “it’s an all-hands, all-in issue. Everybody has to have some skin in the game” and bring some money to the table. The federal government has already committed to reducing risk, but it manages a massive amount of land and must be strategic about how it uses funding.

Local governments need to focus on good messaging, public education and enforcement, Boag said. They also must prioritize values — life, property and infrastructure — as guides for how to use money. “I think we can make thoughtful and strategic investments,” she said. Homeowners also need to be educated about opportunities and available incentives as well as what they should do to protect their homes.

Various states have developed innovative ideas to deal with the cost of wildfires. For example, Boag pointed to California and its state-sponsored insurance program for homeowners who can’t obtain insurance. Colorado has followed suit and recently created a state insurance pool for homeowners to help deal with rising insurance costs. After the Marshall Fire, the state also created a fund for homeowners to help offset the cost of rebuilding their homes, which were often underinsured.

“Training the next generation and workforce development is critical,” Boag said, noting the increased need for workers in vegetation management and other forestry work.

While wildfires are unpredictable, Boag said there’s one thing you can count on. “The question is not if a fire will occur, but when.”