GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Costs associated with the loss of nearly 1,000 homes in Colorado wildfires dating back to the Hayman and Coal Seam fires in 2002 to last year’s Black Forest Fire, the state’s most devastating ever in terms of property loss, are fairly easy to measure monetarily.
The much greater loss of life, whether it involves those who are fighting the fires or those who get caught in their path, is more difficult to quantify, observed Bill Hahnenberg, a longtime fire incident commander who spoke at the annual Colorado Wildland Fire Conference in Glenwood Springs on Wednesday.
The upcoming 20th anniversary of the South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain outside of Glenwood Springs, which claimed the lives of 14 federal wildland firefighters on July 6, 1994, was acknowledged with a moment of silence at the start of the two-day conference at the Glenwood Springs Community Center.
It’s also been a year since one of the most devastating wildfire seasons ever nationally in terms of lives lost, including the 19 firefighters who died fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona.
“We are here to address the cost of wildland fire-fighting, and the ultimate cost of wildfire is the loss of life,” said Eric Lovgren, wildfire mitigation manager for Eagle County, in his opening remarks Wednesday.
The conference drew more than 150 state and federal government officials, local elected officials and staff, fire department officials and even some members of the general public to learn about current issues and costs associated with wildfire incidents in the state.
“This is targeted more toward the policy makers and government planners, who are the ones making the decisions to help us plan and prepare,” said Ron Biggers, fire marshal for the Glenwood Springs Fire Department, who helped organize the annual conference.
“If we are going to create fire-adaptive communities we need to have everyone involved, and get our policy makers and decision makers to see how all of this works,” he said.
Wildfires in Colorado have been getting progressively more costly, both for the local, state and federal agencies that are charged with fighting them and the individuals involved whose homes, livelihoods and very lives are threatened.
The number of houses lost to wildfires in the state has ballooned in the last two years, from 259 and 346, respectively, in the 2012 High Park and Waldo fires on the Front Range, to 486 homes lost in the Black Forest fire north of Colorado Springs last summer.
Presenters at the conference on Wednesday explored those costs, as well as the effectiveness of hazard fuel mitigation, planning efforts and potential solutions to wildfire risks.
A special panel discussion had municipal and community leaders talking about their recent experiences, and keynote speaker Peter Brown, director of the Rocky Mountain Tree-Ring Research group, addressed fire ecology and future fuel and fire patterns in western Colorado and eastern Utah.
The conference continues today with additional discussions around the same topics, as well as ways to protect homes and communities from wildfire and to prepare for wildfire events.
Keeping the lines of communication open between policy makers and the emergency response agencies is critical to the success of any emergency preparedness plan, said Garfield County Commissioner John Martin, who gave the formal welcome to conference attendees.
“We as elected officials need to know what your job is and what ours is, and that’s to stay out of your way and give you the resources you need to do that job,” Martin said.