A Colorado dashboard seeks to put a price on future wildfires, other natural disasters amid a warming climate — The #Colorado Sun

The Cameron Peak fire soon after it started on Aug. 13, 2020. By Sept. 11, the fire had grown to more than 102,000 acres and was not expected to be considered out until Oct. 31. Photo credit: InciWeb via The Colorado Sun

From The Colorado Sun (Lucy Haggard):

FACE:Hazards offers a look into how much Colorado might have to fork out to respond to future natural hazards, and how communities could work now to avoid going broke later

As Colorado experiences a record-breaking wildfire season amid accelerating population growth and statewide drought, many are asking: How can we be resilient in the face of inevitable disaster?

It’s a dense question. To find an answer, the Colorado Water Conservation Board teamed up with the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and a handful of other state agencies to create the Future Avoidance Cost Explorer. The Federal Emergency Management Agency joined the effort as part of its Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, and contracting company Lynker helped with data analysis as well as creating an interactive website. Just a year after the project started, the technical report and the website were published this spring.

Also known as FACE:Hazards, the dashboard explores the economic cost of natural hazards under a variety of different potential scenarios as they might look in 2050. Users can explore varying degrees of climate change and population growth, dive into the economics of one specific economic sector like agriculture or recreation, differences between geographic regions, and peruse the impacts different programs have on disaster resilience.

A screenshot from the FACE:Hazards dashboard. This particular model analyzes the economic impact of wildfire based on a moderately warmer climate and medium population growth. Via The Colorado Sun

The price tags estimated for these scenarios are likely lower than they would be in real life, according to Megan Holcomb, senior climate specialist at the Colorado Water Conservation Board and technical lead for the project. This is in large part due to incomplete data; not every county collects the same degree of data on the same economic sectors, for example, so the project could only do analysis when data from every county lined up. Additionally, the data is at a county-level scale, so while it gives a good picture of the state as a whole, cities and towns will need their own assessments for better accuracy.

“We don’t know what parts of economies will be impacted the hardest sometimes,” Holcomb said. “We don’t know where in the state the most serious wildfires are going to happen, we don’t know how that’s going to affect recreation or tourism afterwards. A lot of disasters, by their very nature, are unpredictable … but we just know that these disasters will happen more frequently, and back to back or in conjunction with others.”

Despite its shortcomings, Holcomb says the dashboard and its accompanying technical report can start to fill a much-needed role for decision-makers.

“The Catch-22 of planning far into the future is that’s not how the decision-making process works, and not how funding works,” Holcomb said. “It’s very challenging, but we have to start somewhere.”

While the project could have just been presented as a technical report to legislators, Steve Boand, state hazard mitigation officer and a project adviser, said the team decided from the get-go to make the data more accessible. Not only does this benefit lawmakers who likely don’t have the time to parse pages and pages of data, it also helps communicate the issue in a way that starts a conversation with the agencies like the Office of Emergency Management.

“The goal is for local communities to ask, ‘What do you mean, this is going to cost $300 milion a year, how does that work?’” Boand said. “The general economic impact from fire, drought and flood can be staggering.”

Of the $997,000 dedicated to the project, 75% came from FEMA, with the remainder funded through the state. Ryan Pietramali, recovery division director for FEMA Region 8, which includes Colorado, noted that this is the nation’s first project to take such a thorough look at the practical impacts of disaster planning.

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