Colorado lawmakers talk wildfire solutions

Bob Wooley
bwooley@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 2/22/21

On July 31, 2020, a lightning strike ignited the Pine Gulch Fire near Grand Junction. Drought, hot weather and inaccessible terrain combined to make it spread, and quickly grow, beyond containment. …

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Colorado lawmakers talk wildfire solutions

Posted

On July 31, 2020, a lightning strike ignited the Pine Gulch Fire near Grand Junction. Drought, hot weather and inaccessible terrain combined to make it spread, and quickly grow, beyond containment.

By Aug. 27, it had become the largest wildfire in Colorado history, surpassing the Hayman Fire of 2002.

In a brutal twist of fate, that record lasted less than two months. On Oct. 14, the Cameron Peak Fire was classified as the largest wildfire Colorado had ever seen. That same day, the East Troublesome Fire was first reported, and it too would eventually surpass Pine Gulch.

It took only 62 days to break a record that had stood for 18 years, not once, or twice, but three times. In fact, that record was more than just broken. By all known metrics, it was shattered. 

At more than 209,000 acres, the Cameron Peak Fire more than doubled the acreage burned in the Hayman Fire. And it continued burning during a time when there was snow falling in the high country.

Amid this backdrop, with memories of one of the worst wildfire years in the state’s history still fresh, Congressman Joe Neguse (CD-2), who represents parts of Jefferson County and Clear Creek County, convened a virtual wildfire summit Feb. 19. 

Senators John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet joined in, along with Governor Jared Polis and Stan Hilkey, Executive Director, Colorado Department of Public Safety.

During the hour-long conversation, climate change, wildfire preparedness and possible legislative actions were discussed. Participants also answered questions and listened as victims of Colorado’s wildfires told their stories. More than one of those stories was of mistreatment at the hands of insurance companies after a home was burned. Neguse and Hilkey  agreed to look into insurance company issues to see if there are any laws that can make the process smoother for policy holders.

Neguse also touted recently unveiled legislation he co-sponsored with Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon — the 21st Century Conservation Corps Act. 

He said the Act would address the challenge of mitigation, boosting our outdoor economy by funding a new generation of outfitters and guides. 

More detailed information about the Act can be found on his website, which states “Our 21st Century Conservation Corps legislation would create a much-needed stimulus for America’s public lands and rural economies by taking a page out of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s successful playbook and revitalizing this popular program born out of the New Deal.”

Bennet said one of the most important things that can be done is to change the way Congress thinks about our forests. 

“Not investing in our forests, not doing the forest mitigation or the watershed protection work that needs to be done — we’re reaping the whirlwind now, literally, in these massive fires throughout

Colorado, the Rocky Mountain West and on the west coast,” he said. “So, we’ve got an important job to do to try to convince people that this infrastructure is critical to our economy, to people who live here — to anybody that’s dependent on Colorado’s watersheds.”

Bennet said it’s an important issue to farmers and ranchers and all states downstream from Colorado. Emphasizing that much of the high-risk land is national forest, he said Colorado simply can’t afford to fix the problem by itself. In an effort to make the federal government step up to the plate on the issue, he is introducing a bill called the Outdoor Restoration Force Act. 

He also said the Act can create millions of jobs throughout the country — jobs that could be a good fit for workers having a tough time transitioning from the fossil fuel economy. His website says the Act would “make $20 billion available to state and local governments, tribes, special districts, and nonprofits to hire individuals who can plan, implement, and monitor restoration and resilience projects.”

Other topics that garnered agreement from all participants were the need for improved fire mitigation around homes and structures in areas where wildfires are possible and better evacuation planning.

At the state level, Polis said Colorado has received a $6 million grant that can be used for fire mitigation and $4 million for a watershed restoration program. He said he’s also looking at the possibility of activating AmeriCorp for mitigation this summer.

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