Amazingly Different Coverage of Wildfire Funding: Denver Post

Now, in the previous post here I was critical of what I thought was the Administration’s focus on climate change as the source of wildfires.. only to find out that perhaps it was the New York Times’ spin and not entirely the Administration at all! So let’s compare coverage in the Denver Post and the NY Times…

Here’s the story today from the Post.. more useful details, no climate change ..

The Obama administration wants to fundamentally shift how it pays for firefighting in the United States — something Western lawmakers and governors have been agitating to change for years.

The proposal, which doesn’t increase overall spending and is part of President Barack Obama’s budget this year, essentially allows for separate funds to fight fires so the federal government doesn’t have to take money away from prevention.

Amid a number of the most destructive wildfire seasons ever recorded, the Obama administration has been cribbing cash to fight fires from the same pot used for suppression and prevention.

In a classic robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul scenario, the departments of Agriculture and Interior had to transfer $463 million in 2012 and $636 million in 2013 to fight fires. Those dollars came from programs that removed brush, managed forests and grasslands, and focused on forest health.

“We can’t keep putting our thumb in the dike,” said Gov. John Hickenlooper, following a White House meeting on the issue. “At some point, we’ve got to make the kind of investments that begin to solve the problem.”

Under the proposal unveiled Monday, the costs to fight severe wildfires — those that require emergency response or are near urban areas — would be funded through a new “wildfire suppression cap adjustment.” This funding mechanism removes firefighting cash from regular discretionary budget caps, thus protecting prevention funds.

This budget cap adjustment would be used only to fund the most severe 1 percent of catastrophic fires, and Congress would need to fund costs for the other 99 percent of fires before the cap funds become available.

In an interview, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called the previous funding method “a vicious cycle.”

“It would also allow us to do a better job to work on the 70,000 communities who are now … surrounded by forest,” he said. “They want the benefit of beautiful scenery. This would give us the resources to better prepare those communities.”

Wildfire destruction has become a worsening problem. Six of the most destructive fire seasons in the past 50 years have been since 2000.

Hickenlooper said White House officials on Monday brought Western governors to the Situation Room to view drought, rain and water table conditions nationwide. White House officials said one-third of American families live within the wildland-urban interface.

“It was very sobering,” Hickenlooper said.

In November, El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark told a Senate panel her community needed the federal government’s help to clear dead, dangerous brush adjacent to urban neighborhoods.

On Capitol Hill, where the president’s plan would need approval, bipartisan bills are pending in both the House and the Senate that support the new funding scheme. Both Democratic Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet support the Senate plan.

“This strategy will ensure we fight today’s fires without undermining efforts to get ahead of tomorrow’s blazes,” Udall said in a statement.

Bennet, who held a hearing last fall on the issue, agreed. “Today’s announcement addresses this issue by promoting a smarter, more sensible approach to dealing with wildfires that will save us money in the future,” he said in a statement.

It’s fascinating to me how stories are reported in different regional and national newspapers. And what newspapers are more likely to “blink out.”

Anyway, here’s my question for this story…”one-third of families live within the wildland-urban interface.” That seems like a lot to me. Does anyone know where this figure came from?

18 Comments

    • Larry’s NASA picture: Note the unscathed Cedar Heights subdivision within the perimeter of the Waldo Canyon fire. And here’s the rest of the story . . .:

      The neighborhood has been a poster child for fire mitigation work, said Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach. A couple of years ago, when residents were warned about the potential for fire danger, they took action, he said.

      Working with city officials, they staged a mock evacuation so they would be prepared to pack up and leave at a moment’s notice. The city also gave residents advice about the best ways to mitigate fire threats around their homes and they complied, Bach said. The city even hauled out the debris for free, he said.

      “Thank goodness they prepared when they did,” Bach said. “If not, this would be an entirely different situation.”

      And what about thinning/fuels reduction in the backcountry? Cedar Heights was smart enough not to rely upon that debunked strategy.

      • It depends on the site-specific conditions of said “backcountry”. Some people consider all lands beyond two tree lengths away from homes as “backcountry”. I’d guess that a very large percentage of wildfires that burn homes start in the “backcountry”. How many residents don’t want their “backcountry” views turned into a sea of snags?

      • Andy, I read your “rest of the story” but didn’t find any info on how Cedar Heights mitigated. I would guess they undoubtedly reduced fuels (thus producing the debris the city hauled off) but you don’t seem to think so. Care to back up your assertion that they “did not rely on fuels reduction”?

        • Dan, Sorry I didn’t have time when Andy first posted it to look up this previous work which seemed to indicate that the fuel treatments were helpful. And the folks in Colorado Springs have no “axe to grind” 😉 about timber harvesting.. so it’s hard to imagine why they would make this up.

          Here’s
          the link to the previous post.

          • Another previous, very relevant post about the Waldo Canyon fire is this one, from last March, in which a video from the USFS and NFPA of how Colorado Springs worked to create a Fire Resilient community, and their experience with the Waldo Canyon Fire was posted for everyone’s consideration.

            The post and video only elicited one comment, from myself, the context of which is relevant to the current discussion, so I’ve posted part of it here:

            The video mentioned that the fire started in very hot and dry conditions. The video also made it clear that on the day in which most homes were destroyed by fire that the winds were gusting to 65 miles per hour. To put that into perspective, the National Weather Service would issue a Hurricane Force Wind Warning if gusts top 75 mph, so needless to say 65 mph winds will knock you down to the ground and cause significant damage and disruption just on their own.

            As a result of those winds, one fire official stated, “A lot of the primary fuels were the houses. So the ignitions were house to house….it really turned into an urban conflagration.”

            Of the 345 homes destroyed in the fire 76 had shake shingle roof. 81% of the homes in the immediate area survived the wildfire and clearly the mitigation measures the homeowners took on their own home and their immediate surroundings ahead of time was a big reason why. So too, the mitigation work done right within the neighborhoods ahead of time had a big positive impact.

            Another likely hero to this story is the Class A roofing ordinance and code put in place by Colorado Springs in 2003. Once again the environmental community has always supported stronger building codes and ordinances within the WUI. Of course, in many wildfire-prone parts of the country such support of simple and effective building codes and ordinances is a form of communism, a UN conspiracy and/or just a simple “taking” of one’s private land and their “rights.” So, in many parts of the country enacting these common sense codes/ordinances would be meet with hostile resistance and conspiracy theories.

            Finally, unless I missed it, I didn’t hear much about logging a few miles away from the homes and community. I also didn’t hear the word “bark beetles” or “dead trees” once. Again, maybe I just missed it.

            But certainly, kudos to Colorado Springs for what sounds like a model FireWise program. Once again, if we want to effectively protect homes and communities from wildfire, we start at the home and its immediate surroundings and go from there. The video seemed to make the point that if only 1 out of 3 homeowners take the common-sense steps ahead of time, before the fire starts, that those other non-responsible homeowners are actually putting all the other homes, people and firefighters at risk.

        • Cedar Heights residents reduced fuels on their homes’ lots. No public land was involved in this fuel reduction. They also did other Firewise-sensible things, such as cleaning their gutters of pine needles and stacking wood away from the side of the house. The aerial photo really tells the whole story by itself. The fire came right up to the sub-division’s edge, went all around it, and the homes were spared. No surprise for anyone who has followed the literature on home losses during wildfires, e.g. Jack Cohen’s work. It is the fire ignition zone, within about 150 feet of a house, that determines whether homes burn from a flame front. It is the home’s roofing material that determines whether a home burns from wind-blown firebrands.

  1. Interesting observations, Sharon! Two papers, two ways of approaching the story. FWIW, the White House seems to be pushing the climate angle. Here’s a WH press release:

    For Immediate Release
    February 24, 2014
    Readout of the President’s Meeting with Western Governors

    Today, President Obama met with a bipartisan group of western Governors to talk about a variety of issues facing their states, including the increasing frequency and severity of drought, wildfire, and other extreme weather events. The President reiterated the Administration’s commitment to aid preparedness for, response to, and recovery from these natural disasters. He also pledged to continue to provide support for the Governors as they work through the many complex issues related to water use and drought in their states. As part of that commitment, the President detailed a new approach he will propose in his upcoming budget that fundamentally changes how we fund wildfire suppression to provide for better certainty, safeguards, and effectiveness.

    The President and his advisors discussed the latest science on how a changing climate is contributing to extreme weather and outlined the progress that’s been made on his Climate Action Plan, which includes strategies to work with states to strengthen community preparedness for extreme weather and other impacts of climate change. The President stated that he looks forward to continuing to work with all Governors to ensure that this conversation continues for the sake of their states and of future generations of Americans across the country.

  2. Generally, it seems that most climate “hawks” support the idea of “free range” wildfires as a solution to our forest fire problems. I wonder if those same folks supported spending more money on wildfires, while raiding prevention budgets. I still think that some people place a big importance on how fires were started when judging if a wildfire is “good”, or “bad”.

      • Marek, thanks so much. Let’s take a look at the abstract:

        “The wildland–urban interface (WUI) is the area where houses meet or intermingle
        with undeveloped wildland vegetation. The WUI is thus a focal area for human–
        environment conflicts, such as the destruction of homes by wildfires, habitat fragmentation, introduction of exotic species, and biodiversity decline. Our goal was to conduct a spatially detailed assessment of the WUI across the United States to provide a framework for scientific inquiries into housing growth effects on the environment and to inform both national policymakers and local land managers about the WUI and associated issues. The WUI in the conterminous United States covers 719 156 km2 (9% of land area) and contains 44.8 million housing units (39% of all houses). WUI areas are particularly widespread in the eastern United States, reaching a maximum of 72% of land area in Connecticut. California has the
        highest number of WUI housing units (5.1 million).

        What is interesting to me is that so much of it is in the NE, and yet so few major forest fires are there. It seems to me that since this is a discussion of federal fire suppression bucks (such as this one with regard to wildfire funding) adding places like CT, NY, NH VT and Maine- heavily populated- might give us the wrong idea. Not to speak of second homes.. do they count as 1/2 a family?

        Here’s a paragraph on page 801:

        Major WUI areas are also located along the West Coast, the Colorado Front Range, southeast Texas, and the northern Great Lakes States. WUI is common at the fringe of major metropolitan centers such as Los Angeles, San Francisco(Fig. 1B), Seattle, Denver, Dallas, Atlanta, Washington D.C., New York, and Boston.

        We have had major fires near Denver and LA but not so much SF Seattle Dallas, DC NY and Boston.

        As Ed says there are many ways of ascertaining what’s “in” WUI. It is likely that Ed’s were mapped as part of CWPPs.. not too many of those around DC. This study is based on density. I’ve heard there are other ways.

    • Sharon, if nationwide the WUI zones were mapped the way they were here in Kootenai County, Idaho then I can understand how so many folks are supposedly within the impact area. The WUI here is grossly inflated miles and miles up into the national forest, with no sense or reason that I can tell looking at the maps. So that is likely part of the explanation.

  3. If the 1/3 figure is accurate it is probably an artifact of policy rather than de facto WUI and this may be explained by two things:
    First, the sad extent of leap-frog development and sprawl in this country; and
    Second, the grossly overbroad definition of the WUI used in many Community Wildfire Protection Plans. Pro-extraction county governments see fuel reduction as an excuse for commercial logging and or federal subsidies, so they often drew ridiculously broad WUI boundaries.

    This undermines the main purpose of identifying the WUI which is to prioritize limited resources on effective treatment in the areas that need it most (the home ignition zone), instead of spreading resources thin across wide areas that can never be maintained over the long term.

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