#Wildfires burn across #Colorado

From The Associated Press via The Aspen Times:

More than 2,500 homes are under evacuation orders in Colorado as firefighters battle over a half dozen wildfires around the state.

Most of the evacuations in effect Monday were due to a 78 square mile wildfire in southern Colorado that authorities believe was human caused.

The Costilla County Sheriff’s Office announced Saturday that 52-year-old Jesper Joergensen of Denmark was arrested on arson charges. Investigators haven’t released other details except to say they don’t think he intentionally started the fire…

About 570 homes are evacuated near a 2.4 square mile fire that started Friday near Florissant. About 360 children at a camp also had to be evacuated by the Chateau Fire.

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo) via The Cortez Journal:

The 416 Fire is on track this week to become one of Colorado’s largest wildfires in state history.

According to a Monday morning update from the National Incident Management Organization, the 416 Fire grew by 1,767 acres Sunday, bringing the total area burned to 51,068 acres.

With no signs of slowing down, the 416 Fire is set to break the top five largest wildfires in Colorado state history. Currently, the Last Chance Fire that burned 52,000 acres in 2012 in eastern Colorado holds that spot.

The fourth spot is held by the Missionary Ridge Fire, which ripped through 71,739 acres, also north of Durango.

As of Monday afternoon, the Spring Fire in Costillo County jumped ahead of the 416 Fire in terms of total area burned, scorching more than 56,000 acres.

The Colorado State Forest Service, which keeps track of these numbers, does not add fires to its list until the burns are fully contained.

Julie Malingowski, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, said weather conditions this week will continue to be hot and dry, creating continued risk of fire danger and fire spread…

Over the weekend, however, weather conditions allowed for significant progress on the 416 Fire, according to the Monday report, with firefighters finishing burnout operations on the fire’s southwestern edge.

Crews will remain holding the fire line west of Forest Road 171 to Sheep Head Basin, southeast of the Hermosa Creek wilderness area, with the assistance of helicopter water drops.

With burnout operations concluded, firefighters have moved to the north edge of the fire in an effort to strengthen existing fire lines and prepare for future burnout operations to protect Purgatory Resort…

To date, the 416 Fire, which started June 1, has cost $27 million to fight. As of Monday morning, the fire was 37 percent contained. The cause of the fire is listed as “under investigation.”

Meanwhile officials worry about the aftermath of wildfire and the effects on watersheds. Here’s a report from Monte Whaley writing for The Denver Post. Here’s an excerpt:

Damage to water supplies in reservoirs can be disruptive and cost millions in repairs down the line. To reduce that risk, Denver and its partners are spending $66 million for tree thinning and reforestation above critical watersheds.

Their work comes as a new report, by researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder, warns that wildfires spreading over the western United States already taint nearby streams with unhealthy sediments and organic materials, and may someday overwhelm municipal water supplies. It also comes as dry weather and high temperatures have sparked a spate of wildfires in the mountains, and as authorities brace for fires sparked by July 4 celebrations.

“A great number of drinking water utilities draw water from forested watersheds,” said Fernando Rosario-Ortiz, an associate professor at CU’s Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering. He is also the study’s lead author.

The study, funded by The Water Research Foundation and presented at CU last month, lists challenges posed by wildfires, including short- and long-term effects of the availability and quality of drinking-water sources used by major metropolitan areas such as Denver.

The report also points to possible solutions for utilities serving fire-prone regions and planning for worst-case scenarios. They include expanding water-shortage capacity, using pre-sedimentation basins and diversifying water sources.

“When these watersheds are impacted by wildfire, the impacts on source water quality can be severe, forcing utilities to respond in order to continue to provide safe drinking water to their customers,” Rosario-Ortiz said.

Colorado’s two largest cities say they are aware of the dangers and are pooling dollars and resources to ensure much of the Front Range’s drinking water is protected from the contamination spread by wildfires.

“Denver Water has seen not only a commitment financially but also a commitment in time and energy by us and our partners to keep our water safe,” said Christina Burri, Denver Water’s watershed scientist.

A 2010 agreement — among Denver Water, the U.S. Forest Service and the Colorado State Forest Service and aimed at reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfires — will continue at least through 2021 at a cost of $66 million. The work includes thinning trees and restoring forest on more than 40,000 acres of watershed deemed critical to downstream water supplies, Burri said.

Those areas provide clean drinking water to more than 1.4 million residents in the Denver area, Burri said.

Protecting watersheds has become a top priority on the Front Range, according to Mike Myers, chief of the Colorado Springs Wildland Fire Team, as major wildfires have become almost year-round events…

Ash and silt pollute the Cache la Poudre River after the High Park Fire September 2012

The 2012 High Park fire burned sections of the Cache la Poudre watershed, which serves northern Colorado communities, including Fort Collins.

That same year, the Waldo Canyon fire burned through Pike National Forest, temporarily jeopardizing water supplies for Colorado Springs. The blaze contaminated reservoirs and caused about $10 million in damage to a pipeline in the Northfield reservoir system.

Colorado Springs, however, was able to draw on two smaller reservoirs to provide safe drinking water for residents, Myers said. “We’ve worked hard to have a diverse group of reservoirs we can call on in emergencies, and in this case, it worked well,” he said.

While ecologists and land managers have studied wildfires extensively, the scope of post-wildfire effects on drinking water remains uncertain, researchers said. Data show that fires degrade surface water quality through erosion, ash deposits and increased sediment loads. Nutrient runoff — including nitrogen and phosphorus — can spur algal blooms, which can lead to environmental and health problems and force cities to cut water to residents.

The CU researchers simulated the effects of a medium-temperature wildfire, and the resulting materials were leached into tap water and treated using conventional processes.

The results showed the heated materials increased the turbidity of the water, a key measure of water quality, and responded poorly to chemical coagulants, leading to downstream filtration problems, the CU researchers said…

Forest management work helps to prevent soil from eroding and releasing sediment into streams, reservoirs and rivers, Denver Water’s Burri said.

Hayman burn area via The Denver Post

Tree-thinning and other mitigation work around Denver Water’s Cheesman Reservoir paid off in 2002 during the Hayman fire, which scorched 138,114 acres. A key water source for the Denver area, Burri said, Cheesman’s water stayed relatively untainted by the fire.

From The Climate Law Blog (Jessica Wentz):

On October 9, 2017, the Tubbs Fire ripped through Sonoma County, California, destroying nearly 5,000 homes and killing 22 people. It was the most destructive wildfire in California’s history and the largest urban conflagration in the United States since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake fires. And it was only one of approximately 250 wildfires that sparked that same night in Northern California, causing a total of 44 fatalities and more than $9.4 billion in economic damages.

Now, nine months later, the process of reconstruction has begun. Some of the first homes have gone up on burned lots. Many of these lots are located in the “wildland-urban interface” – rural, forested areas on the outskirts of cities that are much more prone to wildfires. Commenters have questioned the prudency of rebuilding in these areas in light of existing fire hazard and predictions of how the warming climate will fuel more frequent and severe wildfires in the western United States. But there are social and economic factors which are driving reconstruction despite the risk – specifically, the emotional attachment of many property owners to the place they call “home” and the fact that property values in the areas remain extremely high (with some lots listed at over $1,000,000).

The availability of insurance is a critical factor for rebuilding. But many areas prone to wildfire are becoming too risky to insure. As noted in a 2017 report from the California Department of Insurance, premiums and wildfire surcharges have increased significantly in the wildland-urban interface, and several major insurers have stopped writing new policies and renewing plans in areas with high wildfire risk. As insurers begin to account for climate change in their wildfire risk models, they will likely become even less willing to issue and renew policies in these areas.

At this time, insurance is still available to property owners who are rebuilding their homes in the aftermath of the fires. This may be due, in large part, to a California law which prohibits insurance companies from cancelling a policy while a primary residence is being reconstructed after a covered disaster, and requires them to renew the policy at least once following a total loss caused by a disaster (Cal. INS § 675.1). The law provides short-term protection for property owners affected by the fires, but it does not guarantee that insurance will be available in the long run. Most homeowners’ insurance policies are written for a term of only 12 months, and there are no laws in California which prohibit an insurer from refusing to renew a homeowner’s policy (apart from the one exception noted above). The bottom line is that thousands of homes may be reconstructed due to the short-term availability of insurance, only to become uninsurable in the near future.

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