Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Wildfires+Search & Rescue+Wildlife Management+Rising Insurance Costs...What Do They All Have in Common?

Pay me now or Pay for it later???!!
Since the early 2000's we have seen more and more fires across the West. Yes, there were many fires prior to that, but now we are seeing an annual occurrence of fires in the western U.S. This is the driest part of the country and one with the most fire prone forests. As we have continued to "suppress" these fires, the natural fire regime has become disrupted and frankly, extinct. With that has come costly property destruction and a sad loss of lives. As a forester, a question I commonly have directed to me, "what is causing these terrible fires?" Well, it's not an easy short answer, but here goes...
As long as we (me included) continue to live, recreate, and build in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), we will be in danger of threat from wildfires. In fact, these fires aren't really "wild" anymore. They are all too often predictable.
For starters...in Colorado we have seen heavy insect activity (Western spruce budworm before the mountain pine beetle) kill the trees. This has created tremendous "fire load or fuel buildup", in fire speak. People ask, can't you spray for that. The direct answer is yes, but it is not even close to that simple. It is costly, logistical nightmare, and many times environmentally sensitive. In addition to insect activity creating "dead" trees that "burn", we have a U.S. Forest Service that has been stymied from conducting legitimate forestry activities in our state for decades. Consequently we have seen forest product businesses fold and other related markets falter. Why does this matter, you might ask?
What this boils down to is the "lack of forest management" that contributes to UNHEALTHY FORESTS. How does a forest become unhealthy? If Mother Nature does not manage it (i.e. wildfires, insect/disease activity), then Mankind tries to take over. The Mankind management approach can have disastrous consequences if not done in a "holistic way". For example, a professional forester will manage with natural processes in mind so as to create a harmonious, natural approach for the most benefit. The forester considers Best Management Practices, given the current situation. Back to the unhealthy forest concept. The unhealthy forest comes from "overgrowth" from lack of "management" and allowance of natural processes to evolve. The Pay me now or Pay For It Later concept comes in the form of thick, overgrown forests that are destined to "explode" with fire conflagration. That is where the fire suppression concept comes in. What is one of the first things you hear when a fire breaks or promises to be a serious problem? The blank/blank fires is only _% contained. This is how we look at fires...how much of it is "contained". Management includes thinning, insect & disease management, and holistic approaches that contribute to a healthy forest. This in turn "reduces" the seriousness of future fires. Pay for management now, or pay the bill later for fire suppression, analagous to the Midas commercial (pay me now or pay me later).
Anyway, with all the building in these natural areas, we "expect" "protection". Who is responsible for this "protection" from wildfires? Is it the fire department, the local emergency management office, the local homeowner association (HOA), the Sheriff's office, the State, the "forestry service"...? Well, really it is not any of them. It is up to each of us individually and as a whole society/community to have a Plan of action in place. That allows these agencies and individuals to perform their jobs with public support and some knowledge of the issues that then allow for policies that contribute to successful management. If you've read Bill McKibben's book: The End of Nature,
he reminds us of  the reality of what mankind has done to "suppress" the natural processes that we all depend upon for our survival and quality of life.

So, what does all this have to do with wildlife management, search and rescue, development rights, and rising insurance costs?

Just like wildfire costs...there is a price to pay for wildlife management, search and rescue, development rights, and rising insurance costs.

Now, consider the insurance companies in Colorado. Wow, are we going to pay for the fire conflagrations this time. I know that my homeowners insurance is going up, but I expect that it will continue to go up as a result of annual fires in our state. We also know that across the country other areas are facing the same with recurring flooding, hurricanes, and more. Now, many people are forced to get flood insurance or worse yet, many companies will not insure you due to your location.
I have personal experience with this one.

As far as development rights, I have recently heard some disturbing comments. At recent public reviews and updates at certain fire operations, some have raked the county sheriff and other officials for "allowing" development in areas where "protections from fires" could not be achieved. We've all  witnessed decisions where developments were "allowed" in flood plains, unstable geologic zones, and the WUI mentioned above. In most cases, if governments "disallowed" development in these areas, the response was "we have private property rights that you cannot impinge upon". Easy to second guess later...

In the case of wildlife management, our State Wildlife agency is funded by the hunters/fishers by the purchase of their hunting and fishing licenses. No other public funds are involved. The public of the state of Colorado benefits from that wildlife management, with NO PUBLIC FUNDS involved. Yet Joe homeowner has a bear breaking into the house, who do they call for help? In this case, don't pay now, but expect service later.

Consider that hunters and fishers in Colorado pay a required search and rescue fee when they buy their licenses. They are the only ones that pay these fees, yet a mountain climber who gets hurt or stuck somewhere, benefits from these funds. Of course, quite often the search and rescue funds have other funds that are "raised" from other entities.

What do you think?


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