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Review team recommends structure changes to improve wildfire accountability and responsibility

DENVER — Monday, April 23, 2012 — The state’s Division of Emergency Management and wildfire resources at the Colorado State Forest Service should both move under the authority of the Colorado Department of Public Safety, according to a review team charged with developing written recommendations to enhance and define accountability and responsibility for firefighting activities by the State of Colorado.

 

“We need one central point of accountability and responsibility when it comes to state actions in fighting wildfires in Colorado,” Gov. John Hickenlooper said. “These suggested changes will enhance coordination among all state agencies involved in emergency situations and result in a single point of command when dispatching resources and personnel.”

 

“Colorado State University fully supports this recommendation to create a statewide single point of contact for wildfire management,” CSU President Tony Frank said. “A single point of command, control and accountability will better position us to deal with the chaos that so often surrounds a wildfire situation. We all share the goal of being fully prepared to protect Colorado as we enter this fire season.”

 

Hickenlooper and Frank convened the review team on April 16 to strengthen the state’s emergency coordination during wildfires. The review was ordered after last month’s tragic Lower North Fork fire near Conifer.

 

The review team worked quickly to examine the state’s current organizational structure and to explore a variety of options for change. The team has recommended moving the prescribed fire and wildfire management functions of the Colorado State Forest Service out of Colorado State University and moving the Division of Emergency Management out of the Colorado Department of Local Affairs. These changes will enhance the state’s response coordination for wildfire and all other emergencies and hazards. Both agencies will also benefit from working under the same umbrella at the Department of Public Safety, the review team concluded.

 

“The Department of Public Safety has extensive experience responding in times of life-threatening crises,” the review team wrote in a 31-page report. “While the Department of Local Affairs has extensive experience in recovery, the review team felt that moving the Division of Emergency Management and its personnel to the Department of Public Safety will ensure that recovery efforts are still handled with a great deal of sensitivity to the needs and abilities of the local entities.”

 

Colorado State Forest Service functions not related to wildfire suppression, response and prescribed fire should stay at CSU, according to the review team. Colorado State Forest Service functions not related to wildfire suppression, response and prescribed fire should stay at CSU, according to the review team.

 

These changes will require legislative action. The Governor’s Office is working with leadership in both the Colorado Senate and Colorado House of Representatives to introduce these changes in the current legislative session. If approved by the General Assembly, the changes in all of the affected agencies could be made this summer.

 

“In the meantime, as we head into the height of the wildfire season, we will have the current structures in place and be ready to respond as needed,” Hickenlooper said.

 

The review team today also responded to recommendations made by Bill Bass in his recent review of the Lower North Fork fire prescribed fire. Those responses can be found in the review team’s full report at http://bit.ly/IjJKBu.

 

Two other reviews related to the Lower North Fork fire are still pending.

 

Hickenlooper, joined by U.S. Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet and U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, have asked the U.S. Forest Service for a federal review of the Lower North Fork fire. The requested review will examine such things as fire suppression efforts, evacuation procedures, communication among responders and residents as well as forest and weather conditions that led to this wildfire. This review will be initiated within the next month, and will take many months to complete.

 

The governor has suspended the use of prescribed burns by state agencies, or on state lands, until a broader review of the procedures and protocols used by the Colorado State Forest Service for conducting prescribed fire can be done. The Prescribed Fire Protocol Review Team has started its work.

 

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