Task force reveals recommendations to reduce risk of losing homes in wildfire-prone areas

1 million homeowners could face new wildfire fee

DENVER - About one million homeowners in Colorado could be asked to pay an additional fee for living in a high wildfire-risk area.

The Wildfire Insurance and Forest Health Task Force presented its recommendations to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper Monday afternoon.

The task force was created to identify ways to reduce the risk of loss in wildland-urban interface areas. The Colorado State Forest Service defines a wildland-urban interface area as an area where man-made improvements are built close to natural terrain and flammable vegetation and a high potential for wildfires exists.

Among the task force recommendations:

-Update the CO-WRAP (Colorado Wildfire Risk Assessment Portal) map to identify and quantify wildfire risk in the wildland-urban interface

-Create a rating score for homes in the wildland-urban interface

-Assess a fee on properties in the wildland-urban interface to fund mitigation

-Pilot program for prescribed burns

"This report is detailed and we're all going to go through it and look at the range of recommendations," said Hickenlooper.

The recommendation to charge a fee to homeowners living in the wildland-urban interface would be based on the risk-level of each home. The rating of a home, on a scale of zero to 10, would be based on seven variables: topography and fuels, construction elements, landscaping, defensible space, accessibility, water availability and fire protection response.

"Those homes that are highly scored would be subjected to an assessment and evaluation of what efforts could be made to decrease that score," said task force chairwoman Barbara Kelley.

Members of the task force disagreed on the home rating scale.

"Putting a number on a home, what's wrong with that?" asked 7NEWS reporter Marshall Zelinger.

"We have concerns about what it would do in terms of the effect on the ability of a homeowner to sell their home, as well as the effect on the price," said task force member and Colorado Association of Homebuilders CEO Amie Mayhew. "It could very easily make a home uninsurable or it could make that insurance unaffordable, either of which scenario is unacceptable to somebody who has a mortgage on a home and is therefore required to carry insurance."

There are about one million homeowners who live in the wildland-urban interface and are at some risk of wildfire.

"How much of a fee will a homeowner be expected to pay to live in the wildland-urban interface?" asked Zelinger.

"That's a great question and I would have to say the task force did not get into that level of detail because that determination will depend in large part upon the underlying mitigation plan and the other activities that will develop into the cost of those programs," said Kelley. "There is no absolute objective, independent amount that we were looking at. That level of detail and particular structure will depend upon the local communities."

The recommendations also included creating a pilot program for prescribed burning with more flexible air quality permitting options from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

The new approach would allow increased prescribed burning while minimizing exposure to smoke and protecting public health.

The Lower North Fork fire was a prescribed fire that got out of control in March 2012. Two dozen homes were destroyed or damaged and it killed Ann Appel and Sam and Linda Lucas.

Among the mistakes made, 7NEWS uncovered that the Colorado Forest Service failed to watch the fire for a third day in a row as required.

Prescribed burns on state land have been halted ever since.

"Where does the state stand right now on prescribed burns?" asked Zelinger.

"If you are going to do controlled burns, you are going to have to be -- we are going to have to be a lot more careful, not that they weren't," said Hickenlooper. "If we don't do controlled burns, the consensus is we're going to have worse fires that are going to be more devastating. The obvious outcome is we have to figure out how to do controlled burns in a much safer fashion."

According to Hickenlooper, the discussion continues on how to conduct prescribed fires.

"Have we explored other alternatives? Should we take some of this underbrush and move it to a different location. Still do controlled burns, but do them in a way that minimizes the risk," said Hickenlooper.

Some of the recommendations require legislative change. Some of the recommendations require a change to regulations or an executive order. Most of the recommendations come with a cost.