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Black Forest fire report highlights responsibilities for red zone residents

By: Megan Schrader
January 23, 2014 Updated: January 24, 2014 at 7:59 am
photo - An American flag was placed in front of homes that burned in the Waldo Canyon Fire several days after the fire when residents were allowed to return.  (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett)
An American flag was placed in front of homes that burned in the Waldo Canyon Fire several days after the fire when residents were allowed to return. (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett) 

DENVER - Just as a report was released showing that fire mitigation efforts helped save homes during the Black Forest fire, Gov. John Hickenlooper touted the state's response to rampant wildfires, including a proposed tax incentive for homeowners who do such things as create defensible space.

But questions loom about what isn't being done.

Hickenlooper highlighted eight bills that will be considered at the state Capitol in 2014. They include a maximum $2,500 tax credit for homeowners who mitigate their property and a new website filled with information for those living in fire-prone areas.

Not on the agenda are a number of hard-hitting recommendations from the governor's wildfire task force.

Randy Johnson, president of Pikes Peak Wildfire Prevention Partners, said he hopes the life and safety issues of wildfires don't become a "political football" this session.

"I think it would be appropriate if the legislature would, number one, read what came out of the task force and be knowledgeable about the topic," Johnson said, whose group conducted the Black Forest Fire Assessment report, released Thursday, at the governor's request.

There are no bills that recommend such things as risk ratings for individual property in the state and fees or fines for those homeowners with the highest risk. But Johnson said he wouldn't be surprised if some things from the task force get introduced.

Sen. Jeanne Nicholson, D-Black Hawk, said lawmakers who studied the issues during the interim decided to focus on rewarding good behavior of people who live in the Wildland Urban Interface - or so-called red zone - rather than punitive measures.

Other bills that came out of the interim committee provide death benefits to firefighters and create a grant program for equipment safety and training.

Standing next to Hickenlooper at the news conference Thursday, Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, said the bills are a step in the right direction but didn't hesitate to add the state needs to do much more.

King sponsored legislation last session that created a state division for an aerial firefighting fleet, but the bill became law without funding or a mandate to implement a slurry bombing fleet.

Hickenlooper responded Thursday that while the idea is a good one, it needs to be flushed out more thoroughly.

"We have no question that we need more aerial support," Hickenlooper said. "My preference would be to have a number of western states share that cost."

He said there isn't conclusive evidence that more slurry bombers or an amped up air response to a fire could prevent the kind of furious, wind-fueled fires that resulted in such devastation during the Black Forest and Waldo Canyon fires.

"In that report about the Hayman fire, and I'd probably have to go back and read that report, it was specific that air support probably wouldn't have helped that fire," he said.

King pledged to introduce a bill in 2014 that forces the issue of an air fleet by requiring the state to acquire decommissioned planes from the federal government and retrofit them to fight fires.

But with all the talk about what the state should be doing to prevent or fight wildfires, the report on Black Forest repeatedly came down to what homeowners in high-risk areas should do.

"We really need to get people dialed into that concept that there is a level of personal responsibility when you live in the WUI," Johnson said. "Not to look to other people or to the state or the government to fix the problem."

The report released Thursday included surveys of 46 firefighters who battled the Black Forest fire.

Most reported that houses were saved because of defensible space, while some were lost due to incomplete mitigation such as failing to insulate a house from the risk of burning embers or neighboring property that had dense undergrowth and thick tree stands.

Firefighters reported they were more likely to spend time trying to save a house that had defensible space and that for many homes lost access to the property was an issue.

Even though the community of Cathedral Pines has been held out as an example of how to do mitigation right and save the bulk of a subdivision, the report notes that some mitigation efforts were incomplete and put firefighters and houses at risk.

Johnson said mitigation has got to be a community-wide effort.

"It's not just about your property and it's not just about your home," he said. "It goes beyond that. You have a responsibility to your neighbors, their property and their lives, and you have a responsibility to the firefighters who risk their lives."


Wildfire Bills

So far 11 wildfire related bills have been introduced to the Colorado General Assembly:

• HB 1001: Would create an income tax credit for people whose property was destroyed by a natural disaster. The credit would be equal to the property tax liability for the year the natural disaster occurred. Sponsors Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, and Sen. Jeanne Nicholson, D-Blackhawk.

• HB 1003: Would exempt non-Coloradan disaster relief workers from having to pay Colorado income tax on money earned while responding to disasters in Colorado. Sponsors: Rep. Dan Nordberg, R-Colorado Springs, and Sen. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins.

• HB 1004: Would eliminate the Colorado Emergency Planning Commission and transfer those responsibilities to the Division of Fire Prevention and Control. It would also give the governor the ability to provide financial assistance without a federal declaration of disaster. Rep. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette, and Nicholson.

• HB 1007: Would permit county governments to ban open fires to reduce the danger of wildfires and also ban fireworks — even between May 31 and July 5, a time period that was previously blocked out. Sponsors: Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon.

• HB 1008: Would allow the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority to make loans to private entities for forest health projects. Sponsor: Hamner.

• HB 1009: Would change the wildfire mitigation tax deduction to an income tax credit worth half of what homeowners spend on mitigation up to $2,500. Sponsors: Rep. Tony Exum, D-Colorado Springs, and Nicholson.

• HB 1010: Would make a number of corrections to prescribed burning laws passed during the 2013 session, including a reduction in who is qualified to “attend to a burn.” Hamner.

• SB 008: Would create the Wildfire Information and Resource Center, a state website that would provide a slew of fire related information to the public: Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango.

• SB 45: Would make the fire chief responsible for seeking county assistance when fires exceed the capabilities of the fire protection district, and places the sheriff as principal coordinator of federal, state, or local response to wildfire. Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs.

• SB 46: Would create a $3.25 million local firefighter safety fund to be used as a need based grant-program to reimburse local fire districts and departments for safety training and equipment. Sponsors: Nicholson and Exum.

• SB 47: Would create a $10,000 death benefit for survivors of seasonal wildfire firefighters who are killed in the line of duty. Sponsor: Roberts.

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