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Editorial: Wildfire reports sound a call to action

A Colorado Community Media editorial

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With the recent rain and hail that pounded much of the Front Range, bringing flooding to some areas, wildfires may not seem like an imminent threat. But trends tell us otherwise.

It's not a matter of if, but when.

Earlier this spring, the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control released some chilling information in a special report to the governor and General Assembly. The report focused on strategies to enhance the state's aerial firefighting capabilities. In making its case for that, the report stated that since the 1990s, "the number, intensity, and complexity of wildfires in Colorado have been growing exponentially, and experts predict that it will continue to worsen."

The length of the wildfire season is growing, too, the report said.

"In general, Colorado sees short periods of increased fire occurrence throughout the year with just a few of the fires reaching a significant size or complexity. However, the drought conditions and fire activity experienced throughout 2012 - one of the worst wildfire seasons in state history - may be representative of a new normal. Experts warn that drought and the other causal factors could result in repeats of 2012 with widespread fire activity and extended, year-long wildfire seasons."

In recent months, several reports have blamed wildfire trends like this across the West on global warming, perhaps further evidence of a "new normal."

Given the bigger picture, it's difficult for us to find solace in the mid-May prediction by state experts of a "normal" 2014 wildfire season. Even a pre-2012 "normal" means an average year in Colorado would see thousands of fires, with 30 of them being large, destructive blazes. But if 2012 - when 260,000 acres in the state were scorched, more than 600 structures destroyed and six people killed - is a sign of things to come, that's truly alarming.

To their credit, state legislators and Gov. John Hickenlooper took action this past session. On May 12, Hickenlooper signed into law a bill creating the state's first aerial firefighting fleet. The legislation, which comes with a $21 million price tag, creates a fleet of four planes - two leased and two owned by the state - and four leased helicopters and designates money for a center to study high-tech firefighting tactics.

The primary goal, as outlined in the division of fire prevention's report, is to keep fires small. If the fleet can help cut down on an average year's $42 million in fire-suppression-expenses, while saving lives, acres and property, it will be money well spent.

One thing is for certain when it comes to wildfires in Colorado: Inaction is not an option. With the ominous reports that have surfaced, lawmakers here and in other Western states would be wise to read and react for years to come.