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Roberts hosts regional fire meeting
1/2/2014 By: Carole McWilliams
Area fire district, insurance, and local government representatives met with State Sen. Ellen Roberts on Dec. 9 to discuss legislative proposals dealing with wildfire risks in populated areas.
“This is an area where partisan politics has no role,” Roberts said. “This is about public safety, forest health.”
One bill, which currently has no sponsor, would let local governments come onto private property and remove trees to reduce wildfire hazard if the owner won’t do it, and charge the owner. Local governments can already do this with noxious weeds.
“It’s pretty heavy-handed,” Roberts said. “I’m conflicted. I want a mechanism, for who decides… I thought fire districts should say ‘This is a threat’ before authorities could go in.”
County Emergency Management Director Butch Knowlton suggested a person highly knowledgeable in fire behavior to oversee and mediate those decisions, possibly through each county’s sheriff’s office.
“Do you need a state law to do that?” Roberts asked. “Or should this be dealt with county by county?” She speculated that in the eight counties she represents, “I’ll have vastly different feedback depending on the wildfire danger.”
County Commissioner Julie Westendorff commented, “It seems like a lot of this is handled through the insurance industry, people not being able to get insurance until their property is mitigated.”
Insurance agent Ken Willyard said, “We can only deal with our clients. The county can deal with neighborhoods.” Insurance companies don’t deal with mitigation on subdivision common space either.
Agent Terri Will said, “Each company has their own mitigation rules.”
Los Pinos Fire Chief Larry Behrens asserted, “I don’t think this has any place in state government. It should be local control. The state has no place dictating to counties and subdivisions. HOAs should be dealing with this. … We are already getting so many things from the state that affect local control. We need to stand up and take local responsibility.”
Knowlton agreed about local control.
Upper Pine Fire Chief Bruce Evans added, “It’s a fine line. I’ve been very hesitant about infringing on people’s property rights. We have a major dispute now in Los Ranchitos (subdivision on CR 240) about burning slash piles from mitigation.”
A previous HOA board signed the contract for that, but the current board doesn’t want it, Evans said. “Some residents are upset that the slash piles on their property are increasing their risk.” There needs to be a process to deal with things like that, he said.
Knowlton said, “We are coming to kind of a crossroads, and nobody wants to talk about it. Will we tell people no one will come to their house and protect it because it’s too dangerous? … If they don’t mitigate, they burn.”
Westendorff cautioned about the counter-implication that if a homeowner does mitigation to a designated standard, that firefighters must protect that house.
Several participants said in many cases, it is ember showers, not fuel right around a home, that start the house on fire.
Roberts said she won’t sponsor this bill, but she said, “Will local governments have the stomach to turn up the heat? … The bill came up because we have a lot of second home properties and a lot of people think no one can tell them what to do, no matter how much fuel load they have.”
Another bill would allow restrictions on agricultural burning, such as in high wind conditions, Roberts said, indicating support for it.
Ag burns are a way of life, Behrens said. They aren’t going away. “It’s not just one acre. It’s 50 to 60 acres, cattails. Where there used to be pinon-juniper forest, because of the beetle kills, people are taking those out. But there are piles of dead trees. Because it’s ag, it’s outside the parameter of the rules and regs.”
Behrens cited one rancher who called to let the department know about a burn, 30 minutes after he’d lit the fire. There were flames 100 feet in the air, Behrens said.
“The mindset of someone in a subdivision on Florida Road versus the ag are 180 degrees apart,” he said.
Another bill would change a current tax deduction for mitigation costs to a tax credit to make it appealing to more people.
A man who does fire mitigation said, “The problem is getting homeowners to take action. To me, education, FireWise, is the first step. Then incentives for positive behavior. This is the only bill I’ve seen to get people to take action.”
There was concern about the cost of a tax credit, but Roberts said $43 million of state taxpayer money was spent fighting wildfires last year.
Evans suggested that both the tax deduction and tax credit might help get non-local property owners to participate. He said that in the district’s successful tax increase election, a lot of the no votes were from non-local property owners who just don’t want to pay more taxes.
He cited two big absentee-owned parcels between Forest Lakes and Bear Creek Canyon, apparently used as hunting reserves, that he called “a huge risk.”
Roberts asked about a proposal to create a state air tanker fleet at an initial cost of around $20 million.
Air support is a margin of safety for firefighters on the ground, Behrens said. “Without that, it’s like trying to fight a dragon with a stick.”
Another bill would fix problems with a bill passed in the last session dealing with prescribed burns.
“I’m hearing from some people that, even with the fixes, prescribed burns may not happen because of liability concerns,” Roberts said. A completed prescribed burn in the foothills west of Denver reignited in high winds in March 2012 and burned 23 homes. Three people died. That burn was on Denver Water Board land and was conducted by the Colorado State Forest Service.
“To me, prescribed burns are critically important if we are going to see fewer out-of-control buns,” Roberts said.
Much of the discussion was on radio communications, which can be spotty in mountain terrain. Communication among agencies is another issue.
“I’ve reserved one of my bill titles for radio communications,” Roberts said. “That’s an issue that’s come up repeatedly. I’d like to see some movement on that. … The price tag is big, but this is incredibly important for everybody, responders and residents.”
Behrens said, “We’re talking $140 million over five years. If you don’t have communications, you don’t have a whole lot. … Communications is by far the very largest concern. There are too many frequencies because of an inadequate system. The fire service is coming to a place where we are talking about playing hardball. We’ve told the feds we won’t put our firefighters in front of a moving fire without federal air support. The same message to the state if you don’t provide communications and air support. We aren’t getting any federal and state back-up to put our people in danger.”
He continued, “We need a system to communicate with everybody that we need apparatus now. With the Black Forest fire (north of Colorado Springs that burned around 500 homes), we realized we have some huge problems. We all sit on a tinder box for the same thing here. Communications is a number one priority.”
Roberts said it’s the top priority for the interim legislative committee on wildfires. “But some other priorities always seem to push it to the back burner,” she lamented.
Tom McNamara from the County Emergency Management Office said it would take four to five new communication towers at $1 million apiece to fill in radio coverage gaps, “the same infrastructure as an urban area with 10 times as many people.”
And changes in federal regulations have made VHF communication less effective, he said.
Roberts commented, “I’m all for mitigation, and let’s talk about air fleets. But if you’re still not communicating, I don’t know how you move to the next step. … It’s infrastructure as basic as a road.”
She urged participants to stay involved with these issues and contact their U.S. senators and representatives.
“I spent last week in Washington DC, so I’m very jaded,” she said. “I don’t know what they’re doing, but they aren’t addressing the issues here. I think it will have to be done at the local and state level. We can’t wait.”
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