Small firestorm over wildfire legislation

The Colorado Statesman

In the opening days of the legislative session that began on Jan. 8, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle said addressing wildfires is not a partisan conversation, but a “Colorado issue.” Just two weeks later, however, both sides fought for the spotlight as they outlined strategies to protect the state.

Republicans planned a news conference for last Friday where they presented their strategies. But just one day before, on Thursday, Democrats announced their own news conference, which Gov. John Hickenlooper joined.

At the news conference on Thursday, lawmakers touted a modest package of eight bills that focus less on fighting fires and more on incentives such as providing tax credits for clearing tinder.

The measures depart from the recommendations made by a task force convened by Hickenlooper, which issued a report in September calling for more aggressive legislation, including charging fees on homeowners in high-risk burn areas and establishing state building codes for using fire-resistant materials and creating defensible spaces.

But Hickenlooper and Democrats appear wary about dictating to local governments how they should go about fire protection, and they have not moved in the direction of such ideas as fees and tougher building codes, or creating a state website that assesses risk for homes in danger zones.

Still, the governor believes that most of the proposals fall in line with the recommendations of his task force, despite the piecemeal approach.

“Colorado has seen some of the most catastrophic wildfires in our nation’s history,” explained Hickenlooper. “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,” he continued.

The eight bills touted on Thursday have bipartisan support. But Republicans and Democrats still decided to host their own separate news conferences to highlight the measures. The bills explained on Thursday include:

• House Bill 1003, sponsored by Reps. Dan Nordberg, R-Colorado Springs, and Lori Saine, R-Dacono, and Sens. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, and Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud. It would exempt non-Coloradan disaster relief workers from having to pay Colorado income tax on money earned while responding to disasters in Colorado;

• House Bill 1004, sponsored by Reps. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette, and Stephen Humphrey, R-Severance, and Sens. Jeanne Nicholson, D-Black Hawk, and Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs. It would eliminate the Colorado Emergency Planning Commission and transfer its responsibilities to the Division of Fire Prevention and Control, while empowering the governor to provide financial assistance without a federal disaster declaration;

• House Bill 1007, sponsored by Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon. It would permit county governments to prohibit agricultural burning during periods of high fire danger and to prohibit fireworks activity during the summer season;

• House Bill 1008, sponsored by Hamner. The legislation would authorize the state to make loans to private entities for purposes of forest health projects;

• House Bill 1010, sponsored by Hamner. The measure would update state law concerning prescribed burns;

• Senate Bill 8, sponsored by Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango. The legislation would create the wildfire information and resource center in the Division of Fire Prevention and Control in the Department of Public Safety;

• Senate Bill 46, sponsored by Nicholson and Rep. Tony Exum, D-Colorado Springs. It would offer a grant to increase local firefighter safety; and

• Senate Bill 47, sponsored by Sens. Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton, and Roberts. The bill would expedite payment of death benefits for seasonal wildland firefighters killed in line the of duty.

“I am happy to have broad bipartisan support for this bill that will increase the state’s ability to respond to future disasters,” Foote said of his legislation. “This bill will ensure the governor has the ability to extend individual aid to all affected areas as quickly as possible.”

What was noticeably absent from the agenda was a measure that would create an aerial state firefighting fleet. Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, has been pushing for the fleet, passing a measure last year that authorized its creation. He had hoped that the governor’s office would have come up with the money for the fleet, estimated at $20 million last year.

King attended the Democrats’ news conference on Thursday, though he did not criticize the governor — who was standing an arm’s length away — when he was asked about the fleet.

The governor asked King to speak, laughing about the “bipartisan” offer. King responded by discussing the environmental dangers behind wildfires, including the impact it can have on water supplies.

“In the West, when you touch water, you touch everything,” said King. “You have 4 million acres, the potential for carcinogens around your water… You talk to people that know watersheds, it might be 20 years before you have quality water again. We have a catastrophic fire in one of our watersheds, Colorado will change for our generation and possibly for the next.

“My job is to convince you that you need to get involved in protecting your own water… I believe that wildfires are a clear and present danger in Colorado and we need to take action,” he continued.

When asked about the aerial fleet, Hickenlooper pointed to the cost, suggesting that a better solution might be to have an aerial fleet that several Western states share. As the chairman of the Western Governors’ Association, Hickenlooper has been working to create a shared fleet.

“My preference would be to have a number of Western states share the cost…” he said. “I don’t disagree with Sen. King at all about the risk that these fires are presenting and the challenges they create.”

Paul Cook, director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention, also pointed to the cost.

“Securing and retrofitting large, fixed-wing air tankers is extremely expensive, especially in Colorado’s unique environment of hot temperatures and high altitudes,” said Cook. “Before investing in these costly tools for suppression, we need to ensure that the current resources are being used to their maximum effectiveness.”

But King is frustrated that Democrats and the governor aren’t taking more aggressive steps to fund the fleet. At the Republicans’ news conference on Friday, King began screaming into the hallways of the Capitol, “Steve King is an environmental radical!”

He clarified after the event that no one has been accusing him of being an “environmental radical.” He said he simply wanted to demonstrate that he is happy to be considered an environmentalist if it means protecting the state’s water sources from contamination caused by fires.

“I want to be the first conservative Republican in Colorado who is known as an environmental radical,” he said. “Water is an environmental issue, it always has been.

“I would be more than happy to be called an environmental radical when it comes to water,” King continued, comparing himself to Teddy Roosevelt, the former Republican president who made conservationism a highlight of his career.

King’s legislation, which was expected to be introduced on Monday, would acquire four C-130 aircrafts and lease three Type I helicopters.

Under the measure, the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps would be able to start converting the Lockheed C-130 Hercules transport aircrafts into modular firefighting aircrafts. The helicopters would be used to immediately start fighting fires in 2014.

The program would be modeled similar to one used by Cal Fire in California, which says the cost is about $1 million per plane per year, after the estimated $28 million it would cost to retrofit the planes. King believes the cost can be offset through public-private partnerships.

“I’m sorry. I’ve got to tell you. I laugh a little bit at the pushback that I’m getting on this legislation. It is like they have had too much coffee,” King said of the opposition from Democrats.

“This is not a radical idea,” he continued. “And I’ve got news for those naysayers, and it’s a secret… It’s scalable. It’s scalable.”

Roberts agreed with her Republican colleague, suggesting that it may be time to scare the state into taking more aggressive action.

“If Sen. King scares you a little with the sense that our hair’s on fire, trust me, it is,” said Roberts. “We as Western Slopers, as well as now on the Front Range… you know what it’s like to smell that smoke as you try to get to sleep at night.”

Roberts has proposed creating a statewide interoperable radio communications system that enables communication between jurisdictions on the front lines. She has also proposed creating a website that shares wildfire information.

“I don’t believe we are [doing enough],” she said. “I think Colorado can and should and in fact must do more for the public safety of our citizens.”

Republicans are also concerned that there isn’t enough pressure being put on the federal government to do more to take action on federal lands, which accounts for 68 percent of the state’s forested land.

“The biggest place that I think the governor must take the lead in is with the federal government…” said Roberts. “The federal government is not doing what it should be doing to be a good steward of that land.”

Sen. Matt Jones, D-Louisville, who sat on the interim Wildfire Matters Review Committee, does not doubt the seriousness of the issue. Following the Republicans’ news conference on Friday, Jones said Democrats are certainly considering an aerial fleet.

“We should investigate the idea, but I also think we should include neighboring states in that… These are enormously expensive bombers,” said Jones.

The senator is no stranger to wildfires. He worked for Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks, involved with both prescribed burns and wildland fires, such as the Fourmile Canyon Fire in 2010.

Jones believes the legislature is addressing fires through an incentive-based approach and by helping those on the front line.

“We did two things this summer on the interim committee, we made sure to incentivize people doing the right thing… and we protected firefighters,” said Jones. “Those were the themes that we did, and we’re sticking with them.”

He did not rule out taking another look at local governments, including perhaps providing more direction on building codes. But Jones believes most jurisdictions have taken proper steps.

“We’re not telling local governments what to do,” he said. “To the credit of local governments, many… have building codes in place… And so when you look at the number of people already covered, it’s a good-size number.

“There are smaller counties with fewer resources and that’s probably why they haven’t done it already,” Jones continued. “But they certainly know they have a threat…”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com