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Colorado: Governor forms new wildfire advisory groups

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A Summit County firefighter tackles a roadside blaze in March, 2012 near Keystone, Colorado. Bob Berwyn photo.

Red Zone population increases. climate change and continued drought add urgency to the wildfire discussions

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — Responding to last summer’s destructive Colorado wildfires, Gov. John Hickenlooper this week authorized creation of new advisory groups to try reduce the impacts of future fires and to try and reduce the chances of big fires in residential areas.

Last year, the High Park and Waldo Canyon fires destroyed hundreds of homes near Fort Collins and Colorado Springs, costing millions of dollars in damages and relocation costs, as well as firefighting and post-burn restoration.

Given the continued dry conditions in Colorado, the groups are meeting with a certain sense of urgency, said Summit County Commissioner Dan Gibbs, who is a member of the new wildfire advisory group.

One of the top items on the list is helping to shape a bill that would revamp the way the state manages prescribed fires, which are used to reduce fuel to try and prevent uncontrolled catastrophic fires.

A review of last spring’s North Fork Fire in Jefferson County indicated that some of the people involved in oversight of the prescribed burn that led to the wildfire didn’t have all the right training, Gibbs said.

Another key focus is revving up the initial response to wildfires to try and keep them small and contained in the early stages, Gibbs said. When the fires become big Type 1 incidents like High Park and Waldo Canyon, the costs quickly spiral upward, often reaching $1 million per day, he explained.

As far as short-term preparation for the upcoming wildfire season, Gibbs said the single most important thing is continued mitigation in the immediate home ignition zone, right around structures.

Anything, whether it’s grants, tax breaks or public information and outreach, that contributes to more of that work getting done is the best way to prevent property loss and damage, he said.

“More than 25 percent of Colorado’s population lives in the wildland-urban interface,” Hickenlooper said. “These new Executive Orders, along with a proposed fuels reduction grant program, detail actions that can help reduce the loss from wildland fires and increase protection for communities, first responders and property investments.”

The wildfire insurance and forest health task force will draft recommendations on wildfire insurance for homeowners and guidelines for forest health and wildfire mitigation work. The group’s scope will include a review of insurance issues relating to the 2012 fire season, including replacement costs for destroyed homes, relocation assistance, accounting for lost personal property and the timing of insurance benefits.

The task force  will explore how to provide better understanding of insurance coverage for policyholders. Also, it will explore insurance policies that promote forest health, reduce wildland fire threats and help incentivize wise planning and stewardship and reduce loss of life and property.

A second group is a fire advisory committee that will cover all matters pertaining to wildfire preparedness, response, suppression, coordination, or management and prescribed fire.

Last March, Hickenlooper suspended the use of prescribed and controlled burning by state agencies or on state lands until protocols and procedures were reviewed and revised as necessary. One of the executive orders signed by Hickenlooper this week lifts the ban to enable slash burning, with new guidelines.

“Although weather conditions across Colorado have changed over the recent months, for those Colorado residents living in the wildland-urban interface, there is still concern of disastrous wildfire,” the Executive Order says. “Pile burning operations in this area will reduce the risk of devastating wildfires, by reducing the hazardous accumulation of slash resulting from fuels treatment activities. These fuel treatment activities not only reduce wildfire potential, but work to increase the health of forests, by thinning forest strands and eliminating weak and diseased trees. Weaker trees that remain in the forest are prone to insect attacks and disease.”

These Executive Orders come at the same time the governor is requesting $10.3 million for the Department of Natural Resources in an amended budget request. The funding is for a grant program that would match local dollars for improving forest health and wildfire prevention in wildland-urban interface areas.

Colorado’s conservation community responded positively to Hickenlooper’s announcement, saying that last summer’s wildfires were a wakeup call.

“We appreciate Governor Hickenlooper’s leadership in taking positive measures to protect Colorado communities from wildland forest fires,” Wilderness Workshop director Sloan Shoemaker said in a statement. “This past summer was a wake up call for our State to the threat that climate induced forest fires poses to Colorado homes and communities.  As climate change continues to make wildfire conditions ever more hazardous, it is critical that attention be focused on protecting our citizens and communities …  Harnessing the free market power of the insurance industry to leverage homeowners to take vital actions to protect their homes is the right approach.

“We applaud the Governor for his acknowledgement that many of Colorado’s forests need prescribed fire to maintain their ecological health. Importantly, prescribed fire is the cheapest and most effective way to reduce the hazardous fuels that are causing uncharacteristically severe and destructive wildfires like seen across the front range last summer. Lifting the ban on pile burning and setting up a blue ribbon panel to develop important safety guidelines for prescribed fire are important first steps.”

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