Front Range residents remember all too well the wildfire smoke that enveloped our communities last summer and fall as the three largest fires in Colorado history raged across the state. Just those three fires burned more than 665,000 acres and cost taxpayers more than $285 million in fire-suppression costs alone.
To an outsider looking at a map of Colorado, you can understand why it might not seem like the fires have much to do with a city like Westminster, where I live with my family. But living in Westminster, or anywhere else across the Front Range, we understand all too well why it matters. My mother and her husband were unable to walk outside as her husband has COPD, and the air quality was literally dangerous for him. I didn’t let my kids practice for cross country because I was worried about their young lungs.
One frustration is that we know what needs to be done. Good forest mitigation work beforehand can result in much less damaging fires in the first place. Strategies like clearing out defensible space around buildings, prescribed burning, thinning of unhealthy trees and vegetation, and planting native trees can all improve forest health and resilience. And after fires, failing to do good slope stabilization and revegetation work can mean much more expensive damage and costs for water treatment by downstream communities.
"A large and severe wildfire can increase drinking water production costs by $10 million to $100 million," research out of North Carolina State University found. "After the 2002 Hayman fire in Colorado, for example, Denver Water had to spend more than $10 million to remove sediment from its Cheesman and Strontia Springs reservoirs."
In Westminster we face the same challenges. Fires in the mountains bury us in smoke for days or weeks at a time, literally threatening the health of our kids and parents, forcing our businesses to close, and reducing the sales tax revenues that pay for roads and other essential services our businesses depend on to stay alive. But then we face even more costs because of the threat to our water supplies. Spending even small amounts now to protect against natural disasters means tenfold savings for our businesses and residents. Good mitigation projects are expensive, and often beyond the means of individual Colorado communities, but they are effective.
And even modest reductions in the intensity of these fires can reduce the health dangers. Other research found that severe fires can produce pollution levels that are so high "you might be talking about people who don’t previously have health concerns suffering health impacts … Sometimes, when you have moderate levels of air pollutants, you might predict impacts among people who are most vulnerable. But at such high concentrations, anybody can be affected.”
Colorado's legislature is right now considering a number of bills that would help fund this critical mitigation work and support communities trying to be proactive about these threats. One proposal that stands out is the bipartisan Climate Resilience and Disaster Mitigation Enterprise Fund. The legislation would create a new grant fund to support local governments doing this critical hazard mitigation work. By assessing a small fee on insurance companies ($1.25 per $1,000 on carefully selected certain types of hazard insurance premiums, which would mean a total fee of $2.02 for annual insurance on the average Colorado home), the fund would generate $7.6 million a year.
This program won't solve the entire and very large problem, but it has some key advantages and is a powerful supplement to other funding programs. It gives local communities flexibility to focus on the natural hazards that are most dangerous for them, and to use these dollars as matching funds for federal grants, leveraging even small grants into much larger amounts. As an enterprise fund, it must operate under strict rules governing how the dollars are used, and the program builds in strict transparency and accountability measures. And unlike programs that depend on annual general fund appropriations by the legislature, because this is a fee-funded enterprise program, it will generate a reliable and predictable amount of funding every year. Finally, it will directly benefit Colorado residents and businesses across the state by reducing all of the impacts of dangerous hazards like forest fires, and it will benefit the insurance companies by reducing their liabilities and losses.
There is no single program that will solve Colorado's enormous hazard mitigation crisis, but this particular program would be an extremely high value addition to the toolbox.
Anita Seitz is the mayor pro tem of Westminster.