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Colorado Springs Utilities board swaps leaders, gets update on wildfire danger

April 19, 2017 Updated: April 19, 2017 at 9:36 pm

Colorado Springs Utilities Board leaders switched positions Wednesday, with members voting unanimously to make Tom Strand the chairman, then voting 5-4 to make Andy Pico vice chairman.

The latter vote by the board, which consists of the full City Council, again showed that new Councilman David Geislinger's vote will be crucial.

He also cast the swing vote Tuesday when Richard Skorman was chosen to replace Merv Bennett as council chairman, His Wednesday vote for Pico cost Councilman Bill Murray the vice chairman post on the Utilities board.

The slight change in leadership seemed a minor blip, though, compared with the daunting issue of wildfire dangers that the board addressed Wednesday.

Of nine fire calls so far this year, five threatened Utilities' infrastructure, reported Michael Myers, administrator of Utilities' Catamount Wildland Fire Team.

"I think on the Front Range of Colorado, we're going to see a significant run of fires," Myers warned.

Heavy rains in 2015 spurred growth of grasses and other foliage, resulting in a "fuel bed a lot thicker than we'd anticipated," he said.

But moisture has been sparse over the past year, creating tinder-dry conditions.

At risk are Utilities resources far greater than those in Colorado Springs alone. The electric system serves an area about 2½ times bigger than the city, and natural gas service goes even farther, covering about 527 square miles.

Utilities' water department is massive, spanning 67 watersheds in 11 counties with 25 reservoirs and five water treatment plants.

The mammoth, $825 million Southern Delivery System stretches from the Pueblo Reservoir to the city with 50 miles of underground pipeline, three pump stations, a state-of-the-art water treatment plant and a water pump station. It provides water to Colorado Springs, Fountain, Security and Pueblo West.

Myers said his group collaborates closely with fire teams in El Paso County, its cities, the state and the U.S. Forest Service.

The state created its fire prevention control unit after the Lower North Fork Fire, a deadly blaze sparked in March 2012, three months before the Waldo Canyon Fire erupted near Colorado Springs.

"They're really our partner in protecting our watersheds and natural resources," Myers said. "They pride themselves on being able to respond to a fire within an hour."

The Catamount team also has access to a multi-mission aircraft that can provide real-time data that, if obscured by night or heavy smoke, can immediately be flipped to infrared, he said.

Councilman Murray, an Army retiree and former firefighter, said use of fixed infrared radiation across the mountaintops "could geofix a fire as it first was lit."

"You get the point of origin and faster response, and that's anything within a geographic area," Murray said. "You want to get the ignition point, and we've got the technologies."

Ratepayer Walter Lawson agreed.

"I suggest use of sensors at altitude to locate wildfires faster, 24 hours 365 days a year," Lawson said. "Planes are somewhere else when you need them most. If you want to protect our property, we need to do it ourselves. ...It's like a plane that stays in place and watches and never stops."

Skorman has cited wildfire danger as his top priority and has keen interest in new technology to spot fire starts immediately.

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