El Paso County, Colorado leaders stress wildfire mitigation take at D.C. hearing

By Jakob Rodgers Updated: November 6, 2013 at 3:26 pm • Published: November 5, 2013 | 10:50 pm 0

El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark called for an increased focus on wildfire mitigation work during a hearing Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

"Colorado has been hit time and time again, not just by fires, but floods and other issues...," Clark testified. "But I think that's a critical component - that fire suppression has to be also looked at as an emergency."

Clark reflected on the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire during Tuesday's hearing, which Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., led as chairman of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Conservation, Forestry and Natural Resources.

Bennet framed the hearing as a chance to highlight how Washington's "shortsighted" budgets have affected wildfire mitigation efforts. Money initially intended for mitigation work has been increasingly used to fight wildfires - creating a vicious wildfire cycle across the West, Clark said.

Colorado's past two wildfire seasons became a focus of the hearing.

The state's two most destructive wildfires on record erupted in El Paso County, with the Waldo Canyon fire killing two people and burning 347 homes in 2012 and the Black Forest fire killing two people and destroying 488 homes in June.

Several other fires also ravaged the state, including the West Fork Complex - a 109,615-acre fire this year near Pagosa Springs that threatened the town of South Fork.

Davey Pitcher, Wolf Creek Ski Area's president and chief executive, testified at the hearing about that blaze - a combination of the West Fork, Windy Pass, and Papoose fires that burned a section of forest hit hard by beetle-infested trees.

"Our story is one that has been repeated many times throughout the West," Clark said.

Bennet and Clark sought to emphasize how the devastation wrought by a fire often lasts for years. Clark brought debris from Fountain Creek to the meeting, highlighting the Pikes Peak region's recent flash floods.

Meanwhile, Bennet spoke to a larger wildfire risk to forests throughout the West

"We're talking about the headwaters of a big part of this country," he said. "This isn't just about the state of Colorado."

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Contact Jakob Rodgers: 476-1654

Twitter @jakobrodgers

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