DENVER — Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014 — Gov. John Hickenlooper and lawmakers from both parties today discussed eight bills aimed at improving Colorado’s ability to mitigate and fight wildfires.
The governor also detailed recent steps taken through the Western Governors’ Association to address wildfire prevention and forest health.
“Colorado has seen some of the most catastrophic wildfires in our nation’s history,” Hickenlooper said. “This package of bills is the product of a legislative interim committee created last year and ongoing work on these issues by state agencies and their local partners. We are committed to doing what we can with the state’s available resources to keep Coloradans safe and reduce as much property loss from fire as possible.”
The eight new bills discussed today were:
HB14-1003: Would exempt non-Coloradan disaster relief workers from having to pay Colorado income tax on money earned while responding to disasters in Colorado, by Reps. Dan Nordberg and Lori Saine and Sens. John Kefalas and Kevin Lundberg.
HB14-1004: Would eliminate the Colorado Emergency Planning Commission and transfer its responsibilities to the Division of Fire Prevention and Control. It would also give the governor the ability to provide financial assistance without a federal disaster declaration, by Reps. Mike Foote and Stephen Humphrey and Sens. Jeanne Nicholson and Kent Lambert.
HB14-1007: Concerning the authority of county governments to limit certain forms of fire, and, in connection therewith, permitting county governments to prohibit agricultural burning during periods of high fire danger and to prohibit fireworks activity during the summer season, by Rep. Millie Hamner.
HB14-1008: Concerning the authorization of the Colorado water resources and power development authority to make loans to private entities for purposes of forest health projects, by Rep. Millie Hamner.
HB14-1010: Concerning corrections to statutory provisions relating to the prescribed burning program administered by the Division of Fire Prevention and Control in the Department of Public Safety, by Rep. Millie Hamner.
SB14-008: Concerning the creation of the wildfire information and resource center in the Division of Fire Prevention and Control in the Department of Public Safety, by Sen. Ellen Roberts.
SB14-046: Concerning a grant program to increase local firefighter safety, by Sen. Jeanne Nicholson and Rep. Tony Exum.
SB14-047: Concerning the payment of death benefits for seasonal wildland firefighters killed in the line of duty, by Sens. Lois Tochtrop and Ellen Roberts.
This package of bills does not address a state firefighting fleet because more work needs to done on this issue. Specifically, there remains unresolved concerns about the cost, management and effectiveness of a state-owned fleet.
“Securing and retrofitting large, fixed-wing airtankers is extremely expensive, especially in Colorado’s unique environment of hot temperatures and high altitudes,” said Paul Cooke, director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control. “Before investing in these costly tools for suppression, we need to ensure that the current resources are being used to their maximum effectiveness.”
The governor has engaged other Western governors to discuss the possibility of a shared fleet, and the governor supports efforts to increase the size of the federal firefighting fleet. Specifically, through Hickenlooper’s leadership, all Western governors share concerns about having enough aerial “firepower” to fight fires and are interested in reviewing a Colorado analysis and discussing options for regional sharing of resources and costs. WGA is also working together to urge the Administration and Congress to fund an update of the federal fleet.
In addition, Hickenlooper and the Western Governors’ Association (WGA) supported reauthorization of the federal Good Neighbor Authority (GNA) and Stewardship Contracting. Both were included in the Omnibus Appropriations Act. GNA is now reauthorized for five years and expanded to other states.
GNA was a successful pilot program in Colorado and Utah that allows agencies to work collaboratively across federal, state and local boundaries to reduce wildfire risks and improve forest health. Stewardship Contracting, another important tool for land managers to leverage public-private partnerships, was reauthorized for one year. This tool allows more flexible, cost-effective methods of reducing fuel loads that feed massive wildfires and helps promote forest health.
Under the governor’s leadership, WGA also supports passage of the “Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2013” (S.1875). This bill allows the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior to access emergency funding to cover suppression of mega-fires without undermining other valuable programs such as hazardous fuels reduction and timber management.
And the governor and other Western governors -- through WGA -- has urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture to prioritize federal funding to thin out the dense stands of trees in Western forests to reduce wildfire threats.
Hickenlooper last year requested an examination of the Black Forest Fire and the role of mitigation efforts on the fire’s behavior, so the state can incorporate the findings in public education and prevention messaging. Further, the governor’s decision to consolidate fire and emergency management functions into the Department of Public Safety resulted in a much closer working relationship and better coordination between the Department of Public Safety, the Department of Natural Resources and the Colorado State Forest Service in responding to and fighting wildfires.
Other recent steps taken by the governor include:
Supporting legislation to shore up our interoperable communications issues.
Supporting the Division of Fire Prevention and Control’s efforts to examine ways to provide early detection and enhance remote sensing capabilities so responding firefighters can arrive earlier and have real-time information to aid in decision support.
Supporting funding for the Division of Fire Prevention and Control to increase the number of state fire engines jointly staffed by state and local firefighters as a “force-multiplier” and an additional means to keep wildfires small.
Directing the Division of Fire Prevention and Control to examine the issue of fire protection in areas of the state that currently have no organized protection; the division is working with fire chiefs on this issue.
The governor also supported legislation passed last year by the General Assembly to create the Wildfire Risk Reduction Grant Program. The grant program will be instrumental in reducing the risk from fire to communities and property. The first round of grants totaling more than $4 million have already gone out to 25 recipients and work is underway. The second round of grants is happening now, with deadline of March 13. Application materials are available on the Colorado Department of Natural Resources website.