RIO GRANDE/MINERAL COUNTY — Wildfires burn through money.
The West Fork Complex Fire (WFCF), which included the West Fork, the Papoose and the Windy Pass Fires, cost $33 million, according the San Luis Valley Public Lands Center (SLVPLC). The fire took nearly 110,000-acres, is considered 66 percent contained and still burns in the forest wilderness, but is not a threat to any people or structures.
Wildfires place a huge economic burden on federal and state budgets, according to reports. The six worst U.S. wildfire seasons since 1960 have all taken place since 2000. The WFCF is the second largest fire in Colorado history.
Since 2002, the cost of federal wildfire protection and suppression has averaged more than $3 billion annually, according to reports. That is more than half the U.S. Forest Service’s yearly budget, and more than 10 percent of the entire Department of the Interior’s annual budget.
The rising cost of wildfire protection is due in part to a changing climate, but also to the growing number of homes being built in and near forests and rural areas that are at higher risk for wildfires or what officials call the wildland-urban interface (WUI), according to reports. Only about 16 percent of WUI areas in western states have been developed, and given the growing numbers of people moving into the region, continued building could lead to even greater costs for federal and state governments.
In January, Gov. John Hickenlooper launched a state task force to investigate ways of improving forest health and limiting wildfire destruction. The group includes representatives of the insurance industry and is considering several new steps.
Among them are instituting stricter building codes in WUI areas, creating a state-run insurance program to help cover losses in high-risk wildfire zones without burdening urban residents and imposing a fee on homeowners in high-risk wildfire regions to offset the cost of protecting their property.
Last month, the Gov. signed an executive order to provide WFCF aftermath efforts $2.5 million. According to the SLVPLC, the Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER), a national forest response team, analysis cost $70,000, and the initial emergency funding request is for $486,000. Response efforts have also secured a “Doppler on Wheel” for just under $70,000 for forty days, and the Rio Grande National Forest will request additional funding for post-wildfire needs at a later date.