Companies find market in reducing wildfire risk

Monday, May 20th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PAGOSA SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) _ Tammy Tyner has one of the hottest businesses in southwestern Colorado.

From a base in Durango, her company, Timber Tech West, helps homeowners and developers by thinning trees, removing brush and offering plans and tips to safeguard mountain homes and building sites from wildfires. Its business is known as wildfire mitigation.

``When we started in 1997, the public wasn't very aware or concerned. Now we have more business than we can handle,'' Tyner said.

Wildfire mitigation companies are needed to reduce wildfire risk in the wooded foothills of Colorado and other Western cities, U.S. Forest Service and state forester's office representatives say. Hundreds of houses have already been lost to Western wildfires over the past three years.

Although dozens of contractors thin brush and trees among other services, the number of companies that specialize in wildfire mitigation is much smaller.

In Florida, Continental Shelf Associates of Jupiter, Fla., which had been doing risk assessments for the oil industry and military, started writing wildfire mitigation plans after wildfires in 1998. A company official said business is expanding as more people want to build in wooded areas.

Just north of Boulder, Phil Pitzer of High Timber Logging and Fireword has been writing fire plans for homeowners for about six years.

``Right now, we are so busy it would be at least two months before we could come to you,'' Pitzer said.

Across Colorado, about 750,000 people live in ``red zones,'' areas rated high for wildfire risk in the foothills, according to the state Office of Emergency Management.

The homes range from rough-hewn cabin hideaways to million-dollar-plus properties between thick stands of pine trees. Many are accessible only by narrow dirt roads that are difficult for fire trucks and heavy equipment to maneuver.

Government agencies have been urging the public to take steps, such as thinning trees and brush, to make homes more defensible to wildfires. Some Colorado counties have enacted regulations that require homeowners to use fire-resistant materials and developers to pave roads and create multiple exits.

Here in Archuleta County, developers must reduce wildfire hazards before homes are built in steeply wooded areas.

``The potential market for services like (these companies offer) is huge,'' said Dennis L. Lynch, a Colorado State University forest sciences professor.

Last year, at least two more companies began offering the same services in the Durango area, Fire Ready and Fire Smart. Fire Ready just sold its first franchise operation in Pagosa Springs, and hopes to sell franchises in other markets.

``We've quadrupled our business in the past year. With Tammy and Fire Smart, we've been sort of involved in creating an industry here,'' said Kristie Borchers, whose husband, Ryan, owns Fire Ready.

``There are a lot of high-dollar people looking for good sound advice,'' said Justin Dombrowski, a Boulder wildland fire information officer.

Much of the work is paid for by federal grant money, done by volunteers, jail inmates and Americorps volunteers. But Dombrowski said there are not enough resources to take care of the problems.

``It is a Band-Aid approach,'' he said.

Part of the problem is the fact that this is hazardous work. Dombrowski said the high cost of insurance scares many contractors away from such jobs. Tyner pays $10,000 a year per field employee for workers compensation insurance coverage.

But the demand for wildfire mitigation has made the business lucrative for those who decide to take it on. Lynch estimated it costs from $500 per acre to $2,000 per acre to remove enough trees and brush to make homes safe.

Tyner said Timber Tech's revenue has grown from $10,000 five years ago to an estimated $350,000 this year.

Clients include subdivisions, including two in Archuleta County in the San Juan Mountains 270 miles southwest of Denver.

Joe Machock, owner of the $30 million Timber Ridge Development near Pagosa Springs, is one of Timber Tech's clients. His three-acre lots at the 7,000-foot elevation usually sell for between $75,000 and $225,000. Million-dollar homes are not unusual in the development.

Eric Stone, Tyner's husband, is an artist with a chain saw and tractor-mounted chipper, and delivers what clients want, Machock said. It's not enough to just clear away brush.

``He manicures and sculpts the land under our direction,'' Machock said. He estimated that the value added to the lot by the wildfire mitigation is twice what he pays Timber Tech for the service.