Colorado's latest bout with devastating wildfires is another opportunity to ask some sobering questions about how and whether we should build communities in forested areas going forward and what the true costs are of living in the wildland-urban interface also known as the WUI.
Gov. John Hickenlooper's Task Force on Wildfire Insurance and Forest Health is now considering a number of recommendations for communities in the WUI. These include tougher building codes to ensure homes and the spaces around them are defensible from fires, designating homes at risk of wildfires prior to sales and allowing more controlled burns to improve forest health and mitigate fire risks.
These are worthy ideas, but there are some more controversial suggestions the task force is considering that need a full airing as well. Among these is assessing a fee on homes in the WUI to help offset the special costs of fighting fires in these areas.
California has such a fee, charging $150 per property in fire-prone areas, a fee that critics said hit folks hard in some areas with high unemployment. Thousands of homeowners are appealing the imposition of the fee.
We'd agree special care should be taken in considering any fee on homeowners in fire areas, with thought given to ability to pay or assessed home values. And it should be clear such a fee is used only to pay fire-related costs, not to shore up government budgets.
The task force also is looking at insurance issues whether homeowners in the WUI should have to carry special coverage for wildfires. In this sense, it would be modeled after the National Flood Insurance Program that was created in 1968.
That program, though, has had trouble keeping its head above water financially, running an $18 billion deficit after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that only grew bigger after Hurricane Sandy last year. That kind of spending doesn't exactly encourage responsible building in flood-prone areas, and a small number of properties that are repeatedly flooded have driven much of the cost to taxpayers.
What was clear from the wildfire task force's discussions, however, was the desire to limit subsidies from the homeowners not living in the WUI to those who are. That's important.
Living near beautiful wilderness areas is a privilege offered in Colorado. Now, more than ever, there's a needed discussion about the responsibilities that come along with that privilege.