State Legislature

Wildfire mitigation efforts unveiled

By Vic Vela
Posted

Gov. John Hickenlooper and state lawmakers unveiled a package of bills on Jan. 23 that is "aimed at improving Colorado's ability to mitigate and fight wildfires."

However, Hickenlooper and legislators spent most of a Capitol press conference answering questions having to do with wildfire mitigation options that are not part of the eight bills that were introduced.

The bills do not include key recommendations made by the governor's own wildfire task force committee, including ones that place fees and building code mandates on homeowners who reside in areas where a high potential for wildfires exists.

And the package does not address the creation of a state firefighting fleet. The governor's office says the issue needs more work. But a Republican lawmaker who is sponsoring his own air tanker legislation said at the same press conference that the time for a wildfire fleet is now.

"I believe that wildfire is a clear and present danger to Colorado and we need to take action," said Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction.

The governor insists that the bipartisan pieces of wildfire legislation that were introduced on Jan. 23 will go a long way in combatting a growing threat facing the state.

"I think with this year we will continue to raise the ante and try to dedicate more resources up front to try to get to these fires sooner," Hickenlooper said.

The bills deal with a variety of areas aimed at wildfire prevention. They include giving the governor the ability to provide financial assistance without a federal disaster declaration; and allowing county governments more autonomy in putting bans on agricultural burning during periods of high fire danger and to clamp down on summer fireworks.

Bills also deal with the creation of the wildfire information and resource center and a grant program that seeks to increase local firefighter safety. Another bill would allow firefighters who are killed while combatting wildfires to collect death benefits.

The governor's office also touted Hickenlooper's role in launching a pilot program that allows agencies across the West to work collaboratively to reduce wildfire risks. The governor is also calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide federal dollars for tree-thinning efforts in Western forests.

But the bills that were introduced on Jan. 23 will not include key recommendations that were made by the governor's wildfire task force, prior to the state of the legislative session.

They included recommendations that lawmakers take up measures that would impose fees on properties that reside in the Wildland Urban Interface, where homes sit in close proximity to terrain where there is a high potential for wildfires. Also, there are no pieces of legislation that would require homeowners living in those areas to create defensive spaces in front of their homes, or that would create a statewide building code, as were also recommended by Hickenlooper's task force.

Instead, lawmakers are proposing legislation that offers homeowners tax credits as a way of enticing them to take up their own mitigation efforts.

"If that doesn't work, we will revisit any ideas that were brought forth by the task force," said Sen. Jeanne Nicholson, D-Black Hawk.

Hickenlooper added that people living in those areas already know the risks.

"We don't have to lean on them with a heavy shoulder," Hickenlooper said.

It also doesn't appear that a proposed firefighting fleet will get off the ground any time soon.

Last year, lawmakers created legislation that would go toward creating an air fleet, but it went unfunded.

Hickenlooper - concerned by the potentially enormous cost for the state to pay for its own firefighting fleet - said he prefers a "shared fleet," one where Western states chip in on the operating costs.

But Hickenlooper said that, so far, neighboring states have expressed concern "that the benefit doesn't justify the cost."

King, who has pushed hard for a firefighting fleet, said he believes "there is an opportunity to deal with this."

When asked whether he supports the wildfire legislation bills, King offered tepid support.

"They're a step in the right direction," King said.

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