DENVER — Colorado lawmakers looking ahead to the next fire season after a historic year are shying away from statewide building requirements, and instead considering tax credits to encourage mitigation and more assistance to firefighters, including death benefits.
Opposition from municipalities led to a reluctance to pursue statewide building policies next legislative session, lawmakers studying the issue said.
"There was sort of a feeling that this was a heavy-handed approach by the state," said Republican Sen. Ellen Roberts, a Durango lawmaker who is part of the committee that approved a package of proposals to address wildfires.
On Thursday, another legislative committee will decide whether to introduce the bills during the legislative session that begins in January.
The idea of a statewide building code was one of many recommendations that arose from a wildfire and insurance task force convened by Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper this year. Although a lawmaker can still propose the idea next year, its chances for success will not be as good as if it had been introduced by committee with bipartisan support.
Local governments that have expressed hesitancy for a statewide building code insist they've taken steps to address the issue themselves. Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach, whose city has endured two of the worst wildfires in state history the last two years, has said officials have worked with residents during the last decade to educate them on fire mitigation and creating defensible space on their properties. He also said the city recently enacted an ordinance requiring people rebuilding homes or building new homes in high-risk fire areas to install ignition-resistant materials and conduct mitigation on their landscaping.
Fires in Colorado Springs and Fort Collins in the past two years destroyed more than 1,000 homes and killed five people.
Roberts said committee members tried to find ways to "encourage Coloradoans to take care of their own property."
The committee's proposals include an income tax credit to cover half of the costs of mitigation done by homeowners. The credit would be capped at $2,500.
Another proposal strengthens counties' authority to prohibit agriculture producers from conducting burns on their property during high fire danger. Lawmakers also want to budget $3.25 million annually for five years for grants to help firefighters buy better equipment.
"They protect us, we should be protecting them," said Gilpin County Sen. Jeanne Nicholson, who chaired the wildfire committee.
Lawmakers are also considering a bill that would pay $10,000 to the families of seasonal firefighters in case of a death to cover burial expenses. The federal government already provides death benefits for state and local firefighters, including part-time firefighters. For example, the 19 firefighters who died in Arizona's Yarnell Hill fire this summer are getting $328,000. But their deaths have brought attention to gaps in other benefits between the full-time and part-time firefighters.
Roberts said the $10,000 payment is designed to immediately help surviving families while they wait for federal benefits, which can take some time to arrive. Lawmakers said the proposal was inspired by the Yarnell firefighters.
"Even though it's not a lot (of money), it just tells our firefighters that we care," said Democratic Sen. Lois Tochtrop of Thornton.
The last time Colorado lost firefighters in the line of duty was 2008, when two volunteer firefighters died during a wildfire in the town of Ordway.