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Colorado: Udall, Bennet seek in-depth wildfire study

Ash-covered ground and burned trees in the High Park fire zone. Photo courtesy InciWeb.

Letter to feds raises numerous questions about High Park, Waldo Canyon fires but doesn’t mention global warming

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — Colorado’s two U.S. Senators are asking the U.S. Forest Service for an in-depth study of several major wildfires that destroyed hundreds of homes along the Front Range wildland-urban interface — the red zone, where up to 40 percent of the state’s population has chosen to live in areas where fires are a natural part of the ecosystem.

“The unprecedented nature and pattern of these fires calls for a systematic and scientific analysis to learn how we as a society can do better. Our goal is to make sure that the lessons learned — positive and negative — are captured and acted upon appropriately,” they wrote in a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

“Wildfire is a part of life for many Coloradans … Roughly 40 percent of Coloradans live in the most wildfire-prone areas of our state, those areas between cities and forested lands,” Sen. Mark Udall said. “Because so many communities live in these wildfire-prone areas, it is critical that we study past wildfires to prepare for future blazes, he said.”

“Studying this summer’s devastating wildfires can help us understand how to better protect people and their property, predict what conditions can lead to these types of fires and prevent some of the devastating damage we saw,” Sen. Michael Bennet said. “Coloradans are increasingly vulnerable to wildfires and we must do everything we can to be prepared in the future.”

Specifically, the senators want the Forest Service to determine the influence of beetle-kill trees on fire behavior and severity. Day by day reports from the fire indicated that beetle kill was not a major factor in the early phases of the fire, when most of the home destruction happened on private lands. As the fire later moved west into national forest lands, it did affect areas with a higher percentage of beetle-killed trees.

The senators also want the Forest Service to study whether previous forest treatments were effective in stopping or slowing the fire and reducing soil damage, and to outline the “long-term ecological trajectories” of the burned areas.

A similar study conducted after the 2010 Fourmile Canyon Fire suggested that some of the fuel treatments in the area were ineffective in moderating fire behavior and pointed out the importance of strategically planning mitigation treatments and making sure they’re carried out correctly.

Udall and Bennet have worked to leverage federal resources during and after the devastating 2012 fires throughout Colorado. They wrote a letter to the president signed by the Colorado delegation to help secure a swift federal disaster declaration as the fires raged throughout the state.

Both Udall and Bennet also wrote to the Administration to help secure SBA disaster loans for affected areas of the state, and worked closely with Colorado Springs leaders to secure a $100,000 competative grant to help the region recover from the economic impacts of the Waldo Canyon Fire. Udall and Bennet also are working to secure emergency funding for the Emergency Watershed Protection program, which provides support for rehabilitating and restoring watersheds in areas affected by wildfires and other natural disasters.

Udall hosted a field hearing of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in Colorado Springs earlier this summer. Udall also hosted an after-action review with military and U.S. Forest Service officials to encapsulate the lessons learned from the Waldo Canyon Fire.

Bennet, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, fought for the reauthorization of stewardship contracting in the committee’s initial draft of the 2012 Farm Bill. Stewardship contracting authority is a critical tool for the Forest Service to implement projects that restore and maintain healthy forest ecosystems, and provide business opportunities and local employment. Colorado is currently among the states with the most stewardship contracts underway, with 34 projects totaling almost 12,000 acres.

Bennet and Udall has been vocal advocates for passage of the Farm Bill, which passed the Senate in June with bipartisan support. The bill includes vital resources to assist farmers and ranchers suffering from the drought and wildfire damage.

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