Colo. senator wants study of devastating wildfire

Colo. senator wants study of devastating wildfire

17 September 2010

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USA —  Forestry experts should study the wildfire that destroyed at least 166 homes west of Boulder to see whether fire mitigation efforts helped and the nation’s firefighting aircraft are adequate, U.S. Sen. Mark Udall said Thursday.

Udall, D-Colo., said firefighters told him efforts to thin the forest and remove heavy vegetation around some homes helped protect them, avoiding further damage.

Udall also questioned the condition of firefighting aircraft and the system the government uses to lease them from their owners.

“I’ve been concerned for many years about the aging tanker fleet and the very complicated leasing process,” Udall said in a conference call with reporters.

“There have been questions raised” about how effectively tankers and helicopters were used in the fire, he said.

The National Interagency Coordination Center in Boise, Idaho, which oversees firefighting efforts nationwide, referred questions to the Fire and Aviation Management program of the National Forest Service in Washington. A spokeswoman didn’t immediately return a message left after business hours.

Fire officials said high winds and poor visibility from thick smoke sometimes grounded the air tankers and helicopters, but they repeatedly said the aircraft arrived quickly and were used effectively, dropping more than 156,000 gallons of fire retardant.

Udall and others last raised questions about the firefighting fleet in 2002 after two heavy air tankers crashed — one in Colorado and another in California — killing a total of five crew members. A firefighting helicopter pilot was also killed in a Colorado crash that year.

“It continues to be a concern,” he said.

Udall said a review of this year’s Boulder fire could help landowners and federal land managers take steps to combat erosion and could help allocate fire-mitigation spending.

Rain and snowmelt often erode hillsides after wildfires because trees and shrubs that held the soil in place were destroyed.

Denver’s water utility has estimated a 2002 wildfire sent at least 650,000 cubic yards of sediment into one of its reservoirs — enough to fill the Denver Broncos’ Invesco Field at Mile High to a depth of 200 feet. It will be dredged out.

Gov. Bill Ritter on Thursday authorized up to $900,000 to help protect water supplies in the wake of the two fires.

The Boulder fire started Sept. 6 in the foothills west of the city and blackened 6,200 acres — nearly 10 square miles — before it was contained a week later. About 3,500 people were evacuated, but all have been allowed to go home.

As the Boulder fire was winding down, a second fire erupted in the foothill west of Loveland, charring 740 acres and destroying two homes. That fire was fully contained by Thursday night, and all 100 people who had to evacuate were allowed to go home.

Investigators said the Boulder fire was started by embers from a fire pit at the home of a volunteer firefighter and the Loveland fire was started by two residents burning leaves and other debris. No decisions have been made on possible charges in either case.

Officials say the Boulder fire has cost nearly $10 million to fight and the Loveland fire about $1.9 million.

Insurance adjusters are still counting up the costs of the Boulder-area fire, but one industry group expects it to be the costliest in Colorado’s history, surpassing the 2002 Hayaman fire that blackened 138,000 acres.

“This will be the most destructive, most expensive fire in Colorado history,” Carole Walker of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association told Denver’s KUSA-TV.

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