The other firefighters

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    Bryan Foster
 

DURANGO, Colo. - "One neighbor's house and one cabin were destroyed near here," says Todd Swanson, surveying the blackened area behind his house outside this bustling college town. "But the thinning kept the fire back from my place until the slurry bombers were able to come and put it out."

In April, as a prologue to the 2002 fire season, the 200-acre Breen Fire near Swanson's house forced the evacuation of eight homes. But though the flames jumped across a firebreak Swanson had cut into his backyard, they fizzled out where he had hired crews to thin and prune trees and brush. This "defensible space" slowed the fire and gave firefighters room to work.

This is great advertising for Timber Tech West, the company that worked on Swanson's property, as well as another 800 acres in and around Durango. Tammy Tyner, a petite woman who has a natural touch with heavy machinery, took over the operation from her father in 1997. Since then, Timber Tech West has grown from a crew of two to more than 10, equipped with chain saws, ATVs, a chipper and a tractor mounted with a brush-eating rotochopper.

"When the Mission Ridge and Black Ridge Fires broke out this year, people went wild," says Tavia Widder, one of Tyner's longtime customers, referring to fires that burned more than 80,000 acres near Durango this summer. "Tammy parked her equipment in the neighborhood for a week and just worked from house to house."

Local firefighters, foresters, loggers and landscapers have followed Tyner's lead: There are at least ten similar companies now advertising in the local newspaper.

The trend isn't limited to Colorado. Across the West, development is exploding along the "wildland-urban interface." And as more people build homes in fire-prone forests, the business of fire-hazard reduction is booming.

"Three years ago, you could probably count all the contractors on two hands," says Dan Bailey in Missoula, Mont., with the U.S. Forest Service's FireWise Program. "Now there are well over 200 contractors working across the country."

Is your home next?

Still, many homeowners remain dangerously complacent, an attitude, Forest Service officials say, that could lead to more damage like that caused by the 137,760-acre Hayman Fire in Colorado, which destroyed more than 600 structures. Just this year, Colorado State University released a state map that showed 474,000 homes highly vulnerable to wildfire.

The National Interagency Fire Center says that homes in Western forests have become so popular, there are now 10 times more structures susceptible to fire than there were 25 years ago.

"It's not just where the house is," says Jack Cohen, with the U.S. Forest Service Fire Sciences Lab, "it's also the condition of the house that determines ignitability." Cohen has found that most houses burn from ground fires and embers that swirl out like confetti. Modifying the landscaping and building materials of a home can stop these errant flames (HCN, 8/28/00:Home is where the heat is).

Local agencies, faced with rapid development along the forest fringe, have pressed insurance companies to reward - or punish - customers for the defensibility of their homes. But so far, insurance companies have had little financial incentive to do so.

"We haven't seen large insurance losses from fire yet," says Carole Walker of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association. The $80 million in claims estimated for the Colorado fires this year is much less than a $625 million hailstorm in the state in 1990 that spurred insurance discounts for hail-resistant roofs. And even if there were discounts or penalties for fire-hazard zones, they might be too little to change behavior - 5 to 15 percent of an average annual insurance rate of $487, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

A defensible space is a valuable commodity

But the difference between the price of fireproofing a home and fighting a fire on its doorstep is considerable. It costs homeowners anywhere between $120-$1,200 per acre to reduce fuels on their properties, compared to more than $5,000 per acre to fight fires in the interface, according to the Forest Service.

Ruidoso, N.M., is one place that is trying to meet the challenge. There, property owners are required by city ordinance to reduce forest fuels on up to 2 1/2 acres around their homes, and new buildings must be constructed of fire-resistant materials. The village offers free consulting on creating defensible space, and has grappling trucks that come by each week to pick up needles, branches and small trees, which are eventually turned into compost.

"It might be six years before we get all of the properties around town treated," says Rick DeIaco, with the Village of Ruidoso. But they've already seen success, he adds, with the recent Kokopelli Fire that burned part of Ruidoso this spring. Photos of the fire show some blackened foundations, like dark footprints in the forest, but a few houses remain untouched, clearly protected by the open space around them.

But for all the energy going into protecting vulnerable homes, some say there's a better, more sustainable way, both for homeowners and taxpayers: Stop building houses in the forest.

"By understanding how we currently subsidize (building in the interface) with our insurance and mortgage systems, our road-building, our power-grids and our planning processes," says Roger Kennedy, former director of the National Park Service, "we can keep people from harm's way."

Former HCN intern Bryan Foster writes from Santa Fe, New Mexico.