The leadership behind “All of Colorado is Burning”

GUEST COLUMNIST

In 2002, 1,994 forest fires consumed 782 square miles of Colorado’s beautiful forests. 384 families lost their homes. As a staffer for Governor Bill Owens, I watched many of these fires from the Bureau of Land Management’s Emergency Operations Center in Lakewood, updating Governor Owens on the latest developments.

A decade later, the current fire season brings back some intense memories for all of us. I’ve seen Gov. Owens’ face on the news often this month — the famous clip where he stated that “All of Colorado is burning.” I’ve always wanted to lend some perspective to that statement, because I think in hindsight the Governor’s many unprecedented actions that year deserve accolades, and that statement seemed to cloud his exemplary leadership behind the scenes.

We knew it would be a bad year by early April, when Colorado was already more than a year into a terrible drought. The Governor took the unprecedented action of contracting a firefighting plane for the balance of the year — the plane saw action the next day, and has remained on contract for the past ten years. By May, the Governor declared all 64 counties drought disaster areas.

On June 9, a Sunday, I arrived at the BLM offices around 8 am. Governor Owens was in the state plane on his way to Glenwood Springs to visit the Iron Mountain fire. Iron Mountain blew up quickly on June 2, taking several homes and causing many in the Glenwood Springs area to think back to the nearby Storm King Mountain fire in 1994, which took the lives of fourteen firefighters. As a result, fires near Glenwood Springs are particularly emotional for the community.

When I sat down at BLM, a live satellite image showed a cloudless day except for roughly 10 smoke plumes across the state and even more in neighboring states. The Feds had already run out of firefighters, firetrucks, and fire planes to keep up. Much of the morning’s discussion was about where to find more firefighters. They were pulling some squads off of still-burning fires in California, while those already in Colorado were working almost nonstop, day and night.

It was windy in Lakewood and we watched one fire’s smoke plume coming right at us. When the Governor’s plane landed in Glenwood Springs, his press secretary called to ask about the fire they’d just seen in Jefferson County. “They are calling it the Hayman Fire,” I said, “And it’s doubled in size since I started watching it an hour ago.” The Governor’s view from the plane would have been much more dramatic than mine. It was then that he turned to the press and made his famous statement.

He jumped back on the plane and I was to meet him when he landed at Centennial for another briefing. By then it was 100 degrees outside, thick with smoke, and my truck vapor-locked on the way to the airport. The Governor called me just as a police officer pulled up behind me. “Hello Officer,” I said, “I’ll be with you in just a minute. I’m on the phone with Governor Owens.” Incredibly, she believed me and took me to the airport.

The drought and fires placed immense financial pressures on Colorado’s farmers and local governments, as well as the state government. Farmers needed to make major decisions about their crops. Historically, counties were the first on the hook for firefighting costs and were nervous about calling in air tankers in the event they got stuck with the fuel bill. Governor Owens left no stone unturned to help find money.

Later that week the US Secretary of Agriculture, who oversees the Forest Service, wanted to come to Colorado and meet with the Governor. I told her staff the Governor wouldn’t meet with her until she signed the drought assistance requests the Governor made in May. She signed them the next day, opening resources to struggling farmers.

The Governor asked President George W. Bush to designate Colorado’s complex of fires as a Presidential disaster area, opening significant FEMA assistance funds, insurance breaks to homeowners, and also ensuring that local governments and the state would be reimbursed for firefighting expenses. It was unprecedented, because until then FEMA had never accepted an application that lumped together several separate events. Governor Owens worked his strong relationships with the Administration, and we got the Declaration on June 19.

After Hayman, the Governor imposed a statewide fire ban, also unprecedented. I had opposed such a ban, but he was absolutely right. I expected my phone to ring off the hook with angry tourism officials and county commissioners. Instead, the only calls we received expressed gratitude.

By the end of June, the federal government officially confirmed, with resources to bear, that all of Colorado was a disaster area, and a fire hazard, and in severe drought. Coloradans almost universally complied with the statewide fire ban. In the end, the Governor’s famous statement became a call to action and provoked a unifying moment for the state and the country. I don’t know if that’s what he intended when he said it, but I do know that his leadership throughout that historic fire season made it so.

Matt Knoedler is a former state Representative from Lakewood, Senior Policy Advisor to Governor Bill Owens, and Legislative Director to Congressman Tom Tancredo. He is currently a Public Policy Advisor at Patton Boggs, LLP.