BOULDER — Charlie Rose lived in his two-story home in the mountains west of Boulder for more than three decades before deciding it might be a good idea to protect it from wildfires.
The $470,000 wooden house, with a shake-shingle roof and paneled redwood siding inside, had branches on the roof above the guest room and trees on all sides. It was, in the eyes of Cherryvale Fire Protection District officials, kindling waiting for a spark.
Despite the imminent threat, the decision to thin trees — a service the fire district provides for free — replace the roof and do all the work necessary to lessen the extreme fire danger did not come easily.
“We thought maybe it would be better for a fire to burn the whole thing and just take the money,” Rose said, although he and Maria Glowatsch, who lives with him, “finally tipped over to trying to save the house.”
Such reluctance is puzzling to fire officials and insurance industry representatives, who are finding increasingly persuasive ways to change mountain residents’ attitudes.
“Anyone that’s ever gone through losing their home to wildfire would never say that,” said Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association. “First, the personal loss, the memories, the nostalgia — it’s a difficult process to rebuild. ... And you’d better make sure you have enough insurance.”
According to Walker, as more people move to the mountains, building permanent neighborhoods among the trees, the industry is starting to require homeowners to take preventive measures against wildfire.
“If you don’t take all of those scientifically proven steps to protect your property, you are going to have an increasingly hard time to find affordable insurance,” she said. “If you are going to live in a high-risk wildfire area, there’s a certain expectation that you need to work with us to reduce the risk.”
Still, some residents resist creating defensible space for personal reasons, and Cherryvale division chief Don Whittemore said one of the reasons is the cost of hiring someone to thin trees and replace roofs.
“There are people who live in the mountains who don’t care,” Whittemore said. “From a firefighter’s perspective ... we will try everything possible to save a person’s home. That puts firefighters in harm’s way. ... If people are going to live in the mountains, they have to mitigate (for wildfire).”
Jay and Annette Donaghy, who also live in the mountains west of Boulder, said they were against firescaping until they spoke to residents who lost their homes in a 1989 fire that roared through the nearby Sugarloaf community, causing $10 million in damage. They got rid of trees and cleared grass and low-growing bushes.
“I had a hard time with the trees; I cried when they were cut down,” Annette Donaghy said. “But now I’ll never look at them the same again. I look at them as fuel for a fire.”
The Donaghys are remodeling their home with different roofing, fiber-cement siding, fire-
resistant wood and synthetic-
wood decking. They got help from a federal grant and say they are seeing their work pay off with a better view of the mountains and more money in their pockets.
“We saw a definite reduction in our insurance premium,” Jay Donaghy said.
Such incentives by the insurance industry, however, are only a recent development.
In fact, Rose and Glowatsch said that after they replaced their roof and received a discount on their premiums, they asked State Farm if they could get additional reductions for tree-thinning and other mitigation they had had done, and their agent told them no.
Until recently, insurance companies gave few, if any, discounts to mountain dwellers who protected their homes from wildland fires, largely because of minimal losses.
Even though wildfires destroy more than 900 homes each year, annual losses don’t compare to damage caused by other natural catastrophes.
Nationally, wildfires account for 2.3 percent of all insurance losses, while tornadoes account for 32.1 percent, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
In the most expensive Colorado wildfire season — the summer and fall of 2002 — insurance companies paid out about $70.3 million in claims, according to Walker.
“It was still relatively low,” she said, noting that claims paid out for the March 2003 blizzard alone totaled $93 million. “When you look at hail, which is our most expensive insured catastrophe in Colorado, it’s not at all unusual to have $100 million or more hailstorms.”
“Hail doesn’t have the personal devastation, but it is the biggest loss,” Walker said. “That’s where you see the incentives. There simply aren’t the large-scale losses (for wildfires) yet.”
Mountain residents, even if they protect their property, still pay premiums, like urban property owners, based on ratings determined by the Insurance Services Office.
However, ISO ratings are formulated on factors completely unrelated to isolated mountain properties, such as distance from fire hydrants and average response time by fire departments.
“We spend a lot of money on prevention,” Cherryvale Fire Chief Mike Tombolato said. “ISO doesn’t give any breaks to our customers. What they recognize is water and firetrucks.
“But water and firetrucks cannot keep wildland fire from destroying homes. We know that prevention goes a lot further than fire trucks and water.”
What works best, he and others have found, are the incentives, like free mitigation — and fear.
For Len Andreozzi and his family, that came in 2000 as they watched the 1,100-acre Walker Ranch wildfire rage within a mile and a half of their home off Flagstaff Road.
“We had maximum visibility of that fire,” said Andreozzi, whose home sits dangerously at the top of a steep ravine filled with brush and trees.
Two years ago, he invited Cherryvale firefighters to clear hundreds of ponderosa pines and underbrush from his property.
For a week, crews removed fuels and vegetation, creating defensible space intended to slow the approach of a fire.
“Initially, our reaction was, ‘It’s way too thin.’ We had been used to the deep fir undergrowth,” he said. “I now drive down from the top of Flagstaff and look at the extent of the crowding of unmaintained areas. I think it would be advantageous to do this everywhere.”
Tombolato sees residents and the insurance industry warming to the idea of preventive measures, such as defensible space — “We see it creeping in that direction,” he said — but quantifying the benefit in terms of premium reductions remains tricky.
For one, judging whether defensible space is adequate to protect a certain property is subjective. Also, once firebreaks are established, they have to be maintained.
“Who gets to decide if a home has truly been mitigated properly?” Tombolato asked.
According to Walker, State Farm has started assessing properties in so-called red zones, or high-risk wildfire areas. The company is sending notices to homeowners, giving them around two years to make changes, such as removing shake-shingle roofs and thinning trees.
“If they don’t, they risk losing their insurance,” she said.
According to Steve Niccolai, State Farm’s fire operations supervisor and loss mitigation coordinator, the three-year-old pilot program, which covers 26,000 customers in six state, including Colorado, has been successful.
Following the devastation of the 2002 Hayman Fire, Allstate Insurance Co. also started evaluating its position on mountain properties.
Since February 2004, officials for the company’s West Central division have been developing a hazard management inspection process. A mountain home’s insurance risk might be evaluated on whether the homeowner has created defensible space and how accessible a community is to firefighters.
“It will be part of our risk management guidelines and may help determine whether we can provide insurance to a particular customer,” said Gary Chitwood, Allstate property services manager for the West Central region.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Jenn Ooton can be reached at 303-684-5295, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.