State’s fire effort in peril

State’s fire effort in peril

16 January 2009

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USA — In his more than three decades of fighting wildfires in Colorado, Bob Harvey has always been missing one tool: a state government as interested in preventing fires as he is.

That has changed over the past two years, as the evident destruction of the mountain pine beetle has made wildfire danger — and mitigation — one of the hot topics at the state Capitol.

Already this session, at least 10 wildfire-related bills have been introduced. Two months ago, Gov. Bill Ritter pledged $5.5 million to fund a large forest restoration package that is still being negotiated.

“It’s good to see there’s finally a cohesive attack on the wildfire problem in Colorado,” said Harvey, now the chief of Leadville Lake County Fire Rescue.

But the state’s budget calamity threatens to severely weaken that attack, with anticipated pools of money to fund forest thinning, provide incentives for volunteer firefighters and improve community preparedness evaporating even before the projects are approved.

For instance, state Department of Natural Resources spokesman Theo Stein said the revenue stream that had been targeted to fund the $5.5 million plan — severance tax — has seen a “significant shortfall,” even as addressing forest health problems remains a high priority.

“We are looking for ways to reprioritize the severance-tax revenues that we will receive so that we can put significant money into the effort,” Stein wrote in an e-mail.

Today, lawmakers and representatives from the governor’s office planned a meeting to try to salvage some funding for forest programs this session.

“I’ve worked hard to make forest health a top-tier priority down here,” said Sen. Dan Gibbs, a Silverthorne Democrat who is a wildland firefighter in the off-season. “But I just don’t know what the current funding situation looks like.”

State Rep. Christine Scanlan, D-Dillon, said an update she received Thursday showed nearly 2 million acres of Colorado forests have been consumed by the pine beetle.

Both Democrats and Republicans talked up the importance of wildfire funding Thursday in advance of the meeting. Gibbs touted Senate Bill 1, a proposal to create statewide standards for local wildfire plans and then require communities to adopt some version of one.

Republicans held a news conference Thursday to promote a number of other bipartisan bills such as tax incentives for volunteer firefighters and grant programs for local wildfire prevention efforts.

To be sure, not all the bills come with a price tag, but lawmakers said those that do are worth paying for.

“This isn’t just about our personal safety,” said Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen. “It’s about our economy. A lot of Colorado is associated with its natural beauty. We feel it is our duty to protect that natural beauty.”

Harvey, the fire chief, cast the cost in another light.

“If we can latch onto this money and do mitigation,” he said, “it’s much cheaper in the long run than the firefighting itself.”

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