State lawmakers take baby steps to address wildfire threat

Fundamental changes suggested by expert panel last summer not part of this year’s legislative agenda

Firefighters working near Keystone in 2011.

With smoke from some of the Colorado’s biggest and most destructive wildfires still lingering in the air, a panel of wildlife experts last summer called for communities to meet the growing threat head-on by adopting specific building codes, requiring the removal of trees and brush and even rating the fire risk of individual homes.

The recommendations from the Wildfire Insurance and Forest Health Task Force were outlined in a Sept. 30 report to Gov. John Hickenlooper and the state Legislature.

Overall, the panel called for homeowners in fire-prone areas to take more responsibility for their own well-being, especially after the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire and the 2013 Black Forest Fire resulted in more than $750 million in insurance claims.

Specific suggestions included statewide building and development guidelines for the euphemistically tagged wildland-urban interface, which should really be called the wildfire zone.

Right around the same time the panel was wrapping up its work, an interim legislative committee started working on a set of new state laws aimed at the growing wildfire problem. Global warming is likely to worsen the situation in the decades ahead, at least until most of the forests have burned down. But the suggested new laws only take a tiny step toward tackling the huge laundry list of challenges raised by the independent panel. In early media reports, some experts questioned whether there was a disconnect between the task force recommendations and the new bills now pending in Denver.

But the legislative task force wasn’t convened specifically to try to implement the task force recommendations, says co-Chair Millie Hamner (D-Dillon). The public needs to understand that the two processes were different, Hamner says, adding that the task force recommendations are an important first step toward starting a public dialogue about the big changes needed at the state level if the government wants to get real about addressing the wildfire threat.

“I found it interesting that there were two similar groups. We were tasked with looking at legislation that will keep our communities and citizens safe,” Hamner says. “Is Colorado really prepared to deal with catastrophic wildfires?” The bills now pending in the state Legislature are based on input garnered from experts at a series of hearings during late summer and fall, and, taken together as a package, will help address the wildfire threat incrementally.

“Firefighters have recommended these kinds of changes … the last thing we want is inconsistencies in state law — if there’s any confusion whatsoever about how to respond to a wildfire, we need to make sure we clear that up ahead of time,” Hamner says. “One of the things we learned, for every $1 we spend on mitigation saves $4 in firefighting.”

Toward that end, the packet of bills includes tax credits to encourage people to clear flammable materials from their properties, and to increase opportunities for start-up businesses that work with beetle-killed trees.

But other key pieces of legislation have already died in committee, as few lawmakers want to challenge the powerful home-building lobby, or, God forbid, interfere with an individual property owner’s right to live in a pile of kindling in the middle of a flammable forest. So a proposal to authorize local governments to remove trees on private property is already DOA.

Other measures that would restrict agricultural burning (HB 14-1007) face stiff opposition in the Senate Local Government Committee, where lawmakers don’t want to step on any toes, either.

HB 14-1008 has been passed by the Colorado House and Senate, and will enable water districts to help fund forest projects that threaten water supplies.

Another measure that would change the wildfire mitigation tax deduction to a tax credit is in the House Appropriations Committee. That bill could help encourage homeowners to do more brush- and tree-clearing by promising a healthy tax advantage.

Bills funding local firefighter safety grants and expanding state educational efforts are also in the appropriations committee.

It’s possible that the political and social momentum for making fundamental changes will fade if there aren’t any major wildfires this summer, but that would be a mistake according to some experts, who say firefighters are already risking too much to try to protect irresponsible property owners.

But Hamner says she wouldn’t be surprised to see more wildfire legislation in 2015 based on the straightforward task force recommendations.



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