USA – An occasional series of conversations with experts on the science and policies regarding fires.
The 2020 wildfire season is now over — with the winter for prescribed burns — but trends in wildfires mean that Colorado’s government is having to take on greater responsibility for suppression and mitigation, whether it’s assisting local fire districts or working with federal agencies.
Mike Morgan, director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, part of the Department of Public Safety, recently pointed out that the state is increasingly being called in to help as fires grow beyond the reach of local fire districts.
The state’s growing responsibility for dealing with fires also led to the 2019 creation of a fire commission to bring about structural changes in how Colorado addresses fires, including wildfires and the consequences of those fires.
Morgan described the process for the state taking responsibility for wildfires, which is draining bank accounts at a faster rate over the last decade.
It works like this: A local fire chief is responsible for fire suppression until it exceeds that district’s capabilities. There are 375 separate fire districts in Colorado and each one, Morgan said, might have a different idea of what their capabilities are.
Once the fire has grown beyond the fire district’s wherewithal, it goes to the county sheriff, who by statute is also the fire warden. It’s then up to the sheriff to call in the state.
When that request comes in, the Division of Fire Prevention goes through an analysis of threats, risks, weather conditions and the forecast.
“In a perfect world,” Morgan said, “we would never have a fire become a state responsibility.”
To keep it from getting there, the state can provide assistance such as the first water or chemical drop from a firefighting aircraft or hand crews for a couple of days.
But those days are becoming fewer and fewer.
Between 1967 and 1979, there was just one fire in Colorado that grew to the point that it became a state responsibility. In the 20 years that followed, the state averages about one a year.
Between 2000 and 2009, there were 65 state-responsibility fires. In the next decade, from 2010 to 2019, there were 74. This year, there were 16.
That doesn’t include three dozen more that the division responded to with hand crews, air tankers, choppers and other assistance that kept those fires from escalating from local to state control.
Those state-responsibility fires have pushed the boundaries in budgets, too.
The division has access to one-time funds to pay for forest and a wildfire emergency response. The fund is available to fire chiefs and sheriffs to help them to be aggressive with suppression. It was tapped for $700,000 this year. A separate pot of money that counties contribute to generates about $1 million per year. “That’s one afternoon” of firefighting, Morgan said. “It gets painful.”
Once that money is gone, it’s up to the governor to declare an official disaster. Ten fires this year received a disaster declaration.
The other side of the coin is dealing with the federal government, which manages 65% of Colorado’s forests on public lands.
This year, almost every major wildfire had a component on federal lands: Pine Gulch, Grizzly Creek, Cameron Pass, East Troublesome — all that required cost-sharing arrangements with the federal government, including money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
While the federal government eventually pays its fair share, it doesn’t do so quickly. The state has to pay the costs of fighting a wildfire on federal lands up front and wait for reimbursement, which can be as long as five years.
“We accept the responsibility to make payments to local government agencies,” Morgan said. “They don’t have the resources to wait for three to five years.”
The division’s other major responsibility is prevention, and that means keeping an eye on the wildland-urban interface that is home to 2.9 million Coloradans. Fire can be a tool under the right conditions, Morgan said.
Those “right conditions” mean letting a fire burn, such as in a prescribed burn that clears out downed trees and crowded dry vegetation that can fuel a conflagration.
But Morgan explained that despite plenty of fuel, the opportunities for prescribed burns are becoming limited as more Coloradans move into the mountains, adjacent to public lands.
Prevention also becomes a more complicated because of Colorado’s local control government authority. Local governments decide what codes to adopt or what mitigation projects to engage in. Morgan said that among the conversations they’re having with local governments is suppression versus mitigation. The division has to pay for both, but Morgan said the state can’t mitigate its way out of fire and can’t continue to spend millions on suppression.
There has been more cooperation on these big picture issues in the last five years, beginning with a five-year plan developed in late 2016 with fire chiefs, sheriffs, emergency management officials and county commissioners.
That led to the 2019 legislation and creation of the Colorado Fire Commission, which submitted its first recommendations to the General Assembly in August.
Those recommendations include development of a “mutual aid” system that keeps small fires from becoming big ones. That mutual aid system would need staff to coordinate that response, the report said.
Money, of course, is part of the equation.
Another recommendation is to create a fund to manage wildfires that exceed county capability and qualify as a state responsibility. The fund would also provide dollars for forest and vegetative management through the Colorado State Forest Service.
The commission also believes the state lacks consistent reporting and incomplete fire data, which could help understand the “full picture of fire” in Colorado, and recommends a comprehensive data collection program.
“It took us decades to get here,” Morgan said, and changes won’t happen overnight.
On the positive side, more is being done to address the state’s wildfire problem than ever before, Morgan said. Still, there are gaps — one of the biggest is land ownership. It’s not just what the federal government owns; it’s also when someone buys property in the wildland-urban interface. Some counties might require thinning of vegetation and building codes structured to avoid fire problems, but others don’t, Morgan said.
Morgan said he supports local control, but there needs to be a balance, especially “when it impacts everyone around you.”
He said the longer a fire burns, the bigger the impact it will have on lives, property and recovery.
“A large fire in Colorado impacts the entire state, whether it’s the economy, tourism, watersheds or water supply,” Morgan said.
“It’s much bigger than just a bad day in the hills. … These are not easy conversations. The status quo is not an answer, and hope is not a strategy.”