Colorado lawmakers are making quick work of a bill package to address wildfire prevention

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DENVER — After last year’s devastating wildfire season, a bipartisan group of Colorado lawmakers has introduced a series of bills to put the state on better footing for the future.

The legislative work is being tackled on three fronts: mitigate risks, suppress fires that do pop up and protect forest health.

“Last summer was the severest wildfire season we’ve ever had in the state,” said Sen. Chris Hansen, D-Denver. “This is a serious problem and it’s likely to get more serious because of the effects of climate change.”

The first effort is focused on mitigation and reducing risks before the fire season even starts.

SB21-054 provides $6 million more in funding for those mitigation efforts, which can include better protecting homes, forest restoration and more.

If the bill passes, another $4 million will be transferred from the General Fund to the Water Conservation Board Construction Fund as well.

“We are a hotter and dryer Colorado. If we don’t invest the dollars right now to prepare for the next fire season, we’re going to be behind when those fires start breaking out,” said Rep. Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon.

While the mitigation efforts are useful, Garry Briese, the executive director of Colorado State Fire Chiefs, stresses that the state will not be able to mitigate its way out of this problem.

The second front lawmakers are tackling wildfires from is suppression efforts in the form of equipment.

SB21-113 allocates an additional $30.8 million to the Colorado firefighting air corps to buy a Firehawk helicopter.

“It will take about a year and a half to deliver, but it will give us a lot more ability to get on fires quickly,” said Sen. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale.

Firehawks are already being using in California to deal with blazes that break out there by dropping water and transporting up to 12 firefighters at a time.

“It’s an extremely capable aircraft, multi-use, very well tested,” said Briese. “The fire capabilities and the emergency medical services capabilities of the aircraft is a significant enhancement for what we have in Colorado today.”

Along with being used to fight fires, the aircraft can also be used on search and rescue missions. During floor debate, there was some disagreement among Republicans about whether the money should be used to buy one Firehawk or several smaller aircraft.

While the smaller aircraft would be useful in fighting grass fires, Rankin says the Firehawk is necessary for mountain fires, like the many the state experienced over the summer.

The bill also calls for the extension of the leases for other aviation resources to begin earlier in the year so that Colorado has first use of the tankers.

The third area lawmakers are looking to address with their bill package is forest health and watershed protection.

HB21-1008 provides funding for counties, special districts and more to work on forest health projects and use sales taxes to help in those efforts.

“Our forests have been weakened over the years. Pine beetle up at the High Country has just destroyed a healthy forest environment in the ecosystem,” said McCluskie. “Our other efforts have to be around building growing and supporting healthy forest ecosystems and making sure that they continue to thrive.”

An additional $5 million will go to watershed protection to help with things like replanting and erosion prevention.

A fourth bill would pave the way for former inmates with prior firefighting experience to be able to get a job in fire prevention after they are released from prison.

“This bill encourages the Department of Fire Prevention and Control to consider hiring those inmates and open some doors and remove some barriers so they can do that easier,” Briese said. “These are trained personnel. They’re coming out of incarceration and they’re excited about doing the wildland firefighting, and then they run into a closed door.”

All of these efforts are happening on a state level; on a national level, Congressman Joe Neguse, D-Colo., who chairs the subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, is also pushing for wildfire funding.

State lawmakers say they are looking forward to working with their federal partners on wildfire prevention and response. Because so much of Colorado is comprised of federal lands, Hansen says he believes it is not only appropriate, but necessary for the federal government to help.

“In the state level were talking about $10- or $20- or $30 million for individual pieces of this puzzle. The federal government can bring hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said.

Rankin is also considering introducing another bill that will match federal funding up to $10 million on wildfire mitigation efforts.

Briese says fire departments could use all of the help they can get, from personnel to equipment or funding.

“This is the most exciting legislative agenda that I’ve seen in more than five years,” he said.

The firefighting bills were among the first introduced this legislative session and lawmakers have already made quick work of them. Some have already cleared one chamber and are on to the next. The goal is to get these bills passed and signed so that funding can get out the door before the next wildfire season begins.