Colorado hit by increasingly dire wildfire-driven insurance exit

Insurance isn’t the sexiest topic to either write or read about, but an extreme weather-driven downtrend of insurance agency availability is tightening the noose on an already suffocating national housing market.

The U.S. had its highest number — 28 — of annual billion-dollar weather disasters in 2023,  including the Lahaina wildfire, California flooding, and Tropical Cyclone Idalia in Florida, according to a NOAA report. Homeowner insurance agencies’ response to the continually rising costs has either been to drastically increase their insurance rates or to back out from certain areas entirely.

The dire situation first made national headlines last year when numerous agencies, including State Farm, Allstate and Farmers, either paused or placed heavy restrictions on policyholders in wildfire-prone areas in California. Seven of the state’s top 12 insurance agencies have put the restrictions into effect as of November, ABC News reported.

Colorado appears to be the next state to face extremely tight, or nonexistent, homeowner insurance policies caused by increasing wildfire threats. The Durango Herald recently reported the average homeowner insurance premium in the state increased 51.7 percent between January 2019 and October 2022. Meanwhile, some new homeowners in the state are having trouble getting policies at all.

“A State Farm insurance agent in Durango wrote a couple a quote for homeowners insurance. But six days before closing, the State Farm office called to inform the Bowmans that it could not write them a policy,” said the Herald’s story on a couple who recently moved to Durango. “Geico, Travelers, other State Farm agents – all of them turned him down.”

Local insurance businesses in Durango reportedly have “plummeted” by 20 to 30 percent since insurers changed their policies sometime last September. Agents in Colorado expect the insurance issues to keep piling up in the years to come. A Climate Change in Colorado Assessment report for 2024 found climate change and increased atmospheric warming will lessen streamflows and make the state drier, leading to more and worse wildfires.

“Studies have uniformly indicated substantially worsened wildfire risk for Colorado by the mid-21st century compared with the late 20th-century, as additional warming further increases fuel dryness and enhances fire ignition and spread,” the report from the Colorado Climate Center said.

Climate change info -- by Colorado State University
Climate change info — by Colorado State University

Is that risk map current? Depends on the state.

Colorado’s wildfire risk map was so inaccurate that state officials just about ignored it — for many years. The map was outdated, especially in western Colorado, where 3+ million acres of forest was covered in beetle-killed pines.

Carolina Manriquez, a lead forester with the state’s forest service, said they were supposed to use the state risk map, but they knew it was not accurate and therefore couldn’t rely on it. As the E&E News recently reported, an infusion of $480,000 in state funds resulted in a new Colorado map with updates including pine beetle damage and densely populated mountain towns.

Colorado wildfire risk viewer
Colorado wildfire risk viewer

Including 2017 and 2020, when annual wildfires burned more than 10 million acres, the last decade has marked some of the worst fire seasons in history. The risk is compounded by both climate change and growing wildland/urban interface areas, particularly in the West. Some states — including Colorado, Oregon, Utah, and Texas — have moved toward ensuring their fire risk information and maps are updated and more accurate, displaying areas of highest risk and most in need of prevention and mitigation.

Colorado fire risk mapping
Colorado fire risk mapping

“There is a slowly growing push among different states to do this,” said Joe Scott, founder of Pyrologix in Missoula. The firm provides utility wildfire risk assessment, catastrophe modeling, fuels treatment prioritization and management, and exposure analysis.

To improve wildfire risk maps, many states are partnering with firms such as Pyrologix that can build public-access display of fire risk data and conditions. Using satellite imagery, census information, and other data, advanced tools can  determine locations and ranges of ignition probability and fire intensity, along with threatened resource types. Gregory Dillon, director of the USFS fire modeling institute, says the state-specific maps are not a duplication of federal fire maps, but rather a more refined product.

The Kansas Forest Service unveiled in September its new wildfire risk explorer, a digital interactive map that provides a detailed look at statewide fire risk. The effort began in 2018 after several major wildfires including the 2017 Starbuck Fire, which burned some 500,000 acres and destroyed or damaged more than $50 million worth of livestock, fencing, and other resources.

“A lot of state-led efforts are trying to communicate to  communities and residents about the risk to private property or municipalities,” said Jolie Pollet, wildfire risk reduction program coordinator at the Department of the Interior.

That’s slightly different from federal mapping efforts focused on protecting federal lands, Pollet said. State-focused mapping can assess evacuation routes, encourage homeowners to reduce their  risk, and improve prepared applications for federal grants. State improvements such as those in Kansas also help forestry and fire officials allocate limited resources to focus on the highest priority areas.

Colorado fire grows to over 300 acres

The Saint Charles Fire in Pueblo County was estimated at 266 acres Tuesday morning, October 24, and still at zero percent containment. The incident management team said warm temperatures and the lack of humidity recovery overnight had caused the fire to grow substantially, and the Pueblo Chieftain reported today that the fire is now over 300 acres.

Saint Charles Fire
Saint Charles Fire photo by Pueblo County Sheriff’s Office

The Saint Charles Fire started October 14. Additional resources have been ordered and are arriving daily.

Crews reported slightly increased humidity and cooler temperatures yesterday, but further warm and sunny conditions were forecast for Wednesday, with shifting light winds picking up in the afternoon. Stronger winds out of the west at 11-15 mph with gusts up to 20 mph were predicted for Wednesday by late evening, with increased winds and fire activity resulting in further smoky conditions.

About 170 firefighters are working on the fire.

St. Charles Fire
Sikorsky UH-60A helicopter at work on the Saint Charles Fire — from the incident facebook page.

Resources include three helicopters, two SEATs, and three large airtankers, along with an air attack aircraft.

Four nearby neighborhoods are on pre-evacuation notice, including Tara J, Simonson Meadows, Aspen Acres, and the entire San Isabel area; the Pueblo County Sheriff issued a burn ban for the county until the fire is contained.

According to the Custer County Sheriff’s Office, the fire is about a half mile from the Custer County line.

Grants available in Colorado for forest restoration and wildfire risk reduction

Colorado State Forest Service
Colorado State Forest Service

As outlined in the Steamboat Pilot, there are two main types of qualifying projects for funding:

    1. Fuels and Forest Health Projects — must reduce risk of damage to property, infrastructure, water supplies, or other high-value assets from wildfire, or limit the likelihood of wildfires spreading into populated areas. Projects must promote forest health through sciene-based forestry practices that restore ecosystem functions, structures, and species composition.
    2. Capacity Building Projects — must increase community capacity by providing the community with resources and staffing necessary for forest restoration and wildfire risk mitigation projects.

The following individuals, organizations, or entities may apply:

    • Local community groups such as homeowner, neighborhood, or property associations located within or close to the wildland/urban interface.
    • Local government entities including counties, municipalities, fire protection districts, and other special districts in or near the interface.
    • Public or private utilities, including water providers, with infrastructure or land ownership in areas with high risk of catastrophic wildfires.
    • Nonprofit groups that promote hazardous fuels reduction projects or that engage in firefighting or fire management.

Applicants must demonstrate an ability to match 50 percent of the total project cost. Matching contributions can be cash, in-kind, or a combination of both, and may be in the form of private, local government, state or federal support for the project.

Contact your local field office for details. More information is available at or (970)879-0475. Applications are due in mid-October and awards will be announced in April.

Colorado’s 2021 Marshall Fire investigation concluded

Authorities today ended their year-and-a-half-long investigation into the cause of the 2021 Marshall Fire, concluding that Colorado’s most destructive wildfire in history actually had two separate ignition sources, one of which was six days before the fire grew out of control, with the other later originating from arcing power lines.

Boulder County Sheriff Curtis Johnson said the fire was first set on December 24, 2021 to burn branches and construction debris at a religious group’s compound on El Dorado Springs Drive. According to a Colorado Public Radio (CPR) report, that fire was inspected by the local fire department, which determined the fire had been extinguished correctly. But high winds six days later on December 30 uncovered hot ashes and reignited the fire. About an hour later, sparks from an Xcel Energy power line started a second fire about 2,000 feet away.

Boulder District Attorney Michael Dougherty said no criminal charges would be filed against either Xcel or the Twelve Tribes group. “We make our decisions based on evidence,” he said, “and not based on emotion. If we were to tell you we were filing charges today, it would be wrong and unethical.”

The Denver Post reported that the Marshall Fire was Colorado’s costliest; it destroyed $2 billion in property and killed two people.

2021 Marshall FireHigh winds, even with occasional hurricane-force gusts, are not unusual in this foothills region of Colorado, where the eastern prairies meet the Rockies. According to a report, the Marshall Fire ripped through suburban neighborhoods on the west side of the metropolitan area. Pushed by high winds and fueled by dry conditions, the fire burned more than 6,000 acres, killed two people, and destroyed over 1,000 homes. On the day of the windstorm, atmospheric pressure dropped sharply east of the Rockies, and strong downslope winds followed. At the base of the foothills west of Denver, wind gusts reached 100 miles per hour.

Johnson and Dougherty spent more than an hour Thursday morning laying out details of their investigation and how Dougherty came to the conclusion that no criminal charges would be filed.

Investigators found no evidence that members of the Twelve Tribes organization intended to start the Marshall Fire — or that Xcel Energy was negligent in maintaining its equipment, Dougherty said.

The  Twelve Tribes Community is classified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a “Christian fundamentalist cult.” It has a local home in the foothills of the Rockies on Eldorado Springs Drive. “We gather every morning and evening to hear from our Creator through one another,” says the group’s website. “Devoted to the teachings and selfless life of our Master Yahshua the Messiah (Jesus of the Bible), we lay down our lives for one another (meeting each other’s needs first) to see His kingdom come to the earth. We work, rest, dance, laugh, and eat together as a family, enjoying one another’s fellowship.” The Denver Post published an in-depth look at the group a year ago.

At the request of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention & Control, a Facilitated Learning Analysis on the fire was completed. The lengthy and detailed document is in a “storymap” format, which in this case includes many illustrations, photos, and maps.

Xcel, incidentally, is disputing the investigation’s findings, arguing that fires in underground coal deposits (not uncommon in Colorado) near their power lines may be responsible for the start of the second fire. “We strongly disagree with any suggestion that Xcel Energy’s power lines caused the second ignition, which according to the report started 80 to 110 feet away from Xcel Energy’s power lines in an area with underground coal fire activity,” said Xcel spokesman Tyler Bryant. “Xcel Energy did not have the opportunity to review and comment on the analyses relied on by the Sheriff’s Office and believes those analyses are flawed and their conclusions are incorrect.”

 ~ Thanks and a tip of the hat to Rick

Fire in Colorado’s Poudre River Canyon evacuates residents

A 7-acre wildfire in the area of Highway 14 and Arrowhead, according to a report by 9NEWS-TV, resulted in evacuations for residents of Poudre Canyon in Larimer County on Sunday afternoon.

Voluntary evacuations were issued for a stretch of the canyon; the Arrowhead Fire was reported by the Canyon Lakes Ranger District at 50 percent containment by late afternoon.

The Coloradoan reported that the fire was burning near the U.S. Forest Service’s Arrowhead Lodge visitor center, 34 miles west of Ted’s Place along Colorado Highway 14, also known as the Poudre Canyon Highway. The sheriff’s office issued evacuation notices from the Lodge east to Riverside Drive, and residents were told to gather essential items and prepare to evacuate. A Red Cross evacuation site was established at Cache La Poudre Middle School in Laporte, and a portion of Highway 14 was closed between Arrowhead Lodge and Rustic.