FIRE LINES | Joint Budget Committee begins to tackle the issue of wildfires, who pays for it and whether state policies are adequate

27 November 2020

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USA – As Colorado firefighters continue mopping up the last of the state’s wildfires, lawmakers are looking at how to fund both restoration efforts and wildfire prevention.

But several large questions loom over these efforts: how to pay for it, and what’s the right path forward.

The Joint Budget Committee talked with their analysts earlier this month about the budget for the Department of Natural Resources, which will take the lead on restoration, particularly how to protect watersheds and water resources from the aftermath of the state’s worst-ever wildfire season. They also began looking at the budget on fire prevention for the Department of Public Safety.

According to the DNR budget briefing presented by JBC staff analyst Justin Brakke, nearly 2.9 million people live in the 3.2 million acres contained in Colorado’s “wildland-urban interface.” That’s defined as “the area where structures and other human developments meet or intermingle with wildland vegetation.”

In 2007, Colorado State University researchers estimated that the state’s wildland-urban interface would grow to 2.1 million acres by 2030. Instead, according to the briefing, the interface grew to more than 2 million acres in less than half the time. A new model in 2015 projects that Colorado’s wildland-urban interface could be at 9 million acres by 2040.

Those most at risk for wildfires, according to the Colorado State Forest Service, include 368,189 acres with an estimated population of 627,644.

The estimated cost to mitigate just the high-risk areas: conservatively, $700 million, or just under $2,000 per acre.

A review of the Forest Service’s risk map from 2018 shows three areas with the most risk and the most fire activity: Rio Blanco, a wide swath from Montrose County all the way south to the New Mexico state line and east to Archuleta County, and wildland-urban interface areas along the Front Ranges and foothills from the Wyoming state line to Pueblo County.

Rio Blanco County got the first hit in 2020. The Pine Gulch fire, 18 miles north of Grand Junction, burned 139,007 acres in July and August, much of it in southern Rio Blanco County, and the fire briefly held the unfortunate title of the state’s largest wildfire.

The second hit was the Cameron Peak fire in Larimer County: it became the state’s largest wildfire, with 208,913 acres burned and is 92% contained, as of Nov. 26.

East Troublesome, at 193,812 and 72% contained, in Grand and Larimer counties, the Williams Fork fire, in 14,833 acres in Grand County, and Boulder County’s CalWood fire, at 10,106 acres, came after that.

The total acreage burned in 2020, including some smaller fires, was more than 665,000 acres. But 610,000 of those are on federal lands, and spread from those federal lands to homes in the wildland-urban interface, especially for East Troublesome — where 366 homes were damaged or destroyed — and Cameron Peak.

And that’s just one of the problems.

Money is the other, and who is funding what.

Sen. Chris Hansen, a Denver Democrat, commented during the briefing that there’s too much spent on fire response and not enough on mitigation and prevention. “We say the same thing every November: ‘this is the worst fire season we’ve ever had,’ and we keep saying it at the end of each fire season,” Hansen said.

The department’s 2020-21 budget proposal, as submitted by the governor, includes $6 million for fire mitigation. That’s not going to cut it, Hansen said.

Republican Sen. Bob Rankin of Carbondale echoed those concerns. “I’m overwhelmed by the high-risk areas” that could cost $700 million, he said, but added that the federal government isn’t funding these issues on their own lands.

Rankin suggested that part of the problem also lies with responsibility. He pointed out that he ran a bill in 2015 to require the state to assist local governments that want to coordinate with federal agencies on land management. That bill also included requirements for land use planning. The bill was signed into law but Rankin said that the law may need revising. “Some interfaces don’t work well,” he said.

One of the “ticklish” areas Rankin noted: local building codes. He said he walked in the ashes of homes near Grand Lake after the East Troublesome fire, and while he said those are wonderful places to live, homes surrounded by forest and trees burned to the ground. He questioned whether building codes should require space mitigation. The wildland-urban interface has expanded but the result is hundreds of homes destroyed. “Those could have been prevented” with changes in the building codes, he said.

Money plays a role here, too. “We can’t have government money mitigating around everyone’s homes,” Rankin said. Homes that haven’t had mitigation wind up being “red tagged” by the fire department, and they will defend the homes that can be saved, and the red-tag homes will be left to burn.

There are additional challenges to wildfire mitigation, including who will perform the on-the-ground treatments of forested properties, thinning forests and controlled burns. Brakke said there aren’t a lot of people who can do that work. For example, in the division of fire prevention and control, part of the Department of Public Safety, there’s just one dedicated fire manager to handle controlled burns.

Another issue: outdated fire mitigation plans in some counties — Brakke pointed to Grand County,’s which is a decade old — and the lack of a timber industry that could use the wood. There’s just one logging mill in the state, in southwestern Colorado, too far away to make it financially feasible to haul the timber from the northern part of the state.

“Mitigation on its own can’t solve the problem entirely,” but it is beneficial, Brakke told the committee. His briefing noted that mitigation seems preferable because it deals directly with the fuel a fire needs, but it’s costly and time-consuming just to address high-risk areas.

Suppression is an unfortunate second solution, necessary because wildfires are not preventable and the state cannot mitigate all 24 million acres of forest. “Yet it is not clear that suppression should be privileged over mitigation, nor is it clear that the requested suppression resources can prevent all large wildfires.” And suppression over the last century has only made the wildfire problem worse, Brakke wrote.

So what’s in the budget? The budget for 2020-21 and the proposed 2021-22 budget seeks about $53 million for suppression activities, including helicopters and contracts for planes, as the biggest line items. A portion of the request is dedicated to mitigation and risk reduction for wildfires.

Those line items are contained in the budget for the Department of Public Safety.

In January, the JBC will consider supplemental appropriations for both agencies, as well as the state forest service, to cover costs of wildfire activity, a total of $87.4 million. Another $24.4 million is proposed for wildfire efforts for the following budget year.

JBC analyst Emily Hansen explained in her briefing that there are three types of funding for the state’s responsibility on wildfires: the base funding contained in the Division of Fire Prevention and Control, cash funds and the state’s Disaster Emergency Fund, which has been heavily tapped in 2020 to cover the state’s COVID-19 response. However, the governor has so far made $25.6 million available from that fund for firefighting effortsthis year. “It’s a complicated way of funding wildfires and emergencies,” Hansen said.

The JBC plans in the coming weeks to bring representatives from all state agencies with wildfire responsibilities together for a discussion of state policies and budget.

This article has been updated to correct a figure on the cost per acre to mitigate high-risk areas.

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