Mitigation and suppression efforts in search of money | Fire Lines

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An occasional series of conversations with experts on the science and policies regarding fires.

The conversation about forest health, climate change and last year’s wildfire season moved to the money side this week, with four bills dealing with mitigation and fire suppression on the agenda.

Monday, the House Agriculture, Livestock and Water Committee signed off on House Bill 1008, which would allow local communities to set up their own special districts to finance local mitigation projects.

It’s worth noting that the state’s wish list for mitigation funding is in the ballpark of $750 million, just for the most urgent areas. It would take $2.4 billion to fund all mitigation projects in unhealthy forests, according to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR)

State officials have said mitigation alone won’t solve the problem, but neither will fire suppression. It’s a balancing act, they’ve told Colorado Politics.

Money is cobbled together in fits and starts: some coming from the federal government, some from the state. The point of HB 1008 would be to allow local communities to assess themselves a special property tax to fund mitigation projects in their areas.

During Monday’s hearing, bill sponsor Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose, said that a little mitigation work might have saved watersheds damaged in the 2020 blazes. The idea of special district funding is good government, he added. That was echoed by Rep. Perry Will, R-New Castle, in whose district the Pine Gulch fire burned for two months last year. “We wouldn’t have been in that situation if we’d done this bill last year,” he said.

The creation of a special district is an opt-in, meaning it’s up to the local communities to approve them.

The idea comes out of the Southwest Colorado Impact Fund, whose leadership includes former Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango. Attorney Bob Cole of Collins, Cockrel & Cole, representing SWiF, said the group has identified three areas where legislation would help:

  • Creating a financing authority, the special district;
  • Allowing the special district to finance forest health projects through a special assessment; and
  • Granting the local governments the legal authority to do those forest health projects, some of which could be on private land.

“We’re facing a forest health crisis,” said State Forester Mike Lester of the Colorado State Forest Service at Colorado State University. He told the committee that half the population of Colorado now lives in what’s known as the “wildland-urban interface,” areas of the state adjacent to forests and where forest mitigation has become a necessity. Forests face challenges of drought and climate change, with 50% affected by wildfires or disease within the last 20 years, he explained.

The bill won a 11-0 vote from the committee and now heads to the House Finance Committee. Will noted at the hearing’s conclusion that $1 in mitigation saves between $3 and $6 in firefighting costs.

In related news, the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday passed a slew of supplemental bills designed to realign state agency budgets for 2020-21, including three bills tied to mitigation and firefighting costs. All the supplementals passed the committee and are headed to the full Senate.

Among them: $13 million, divided three ways, for mitigation projects, wildfire preparedness and to fund watershed restoration within the DNR.

Senate Bill 54 puts $6 million into the Forest Restoration and Wildfire Risk Mitigation Grant Program Cash Fund, for grants to reduce hazardous fuels, such as dead trees, to reduce the potential risk for wildlife damage to property, infrastructure or water supplies.

The wildfire preparedness fund got $3 million, to be matched with federal dollars, to assist local governments with strategic planning to prevent wildfires.

An additional $4 million would go to the Colorado Water Conservation Board within DNR to work on damage to watersheds from the 2020 wildfires, most notably the East Troublesome Fire in Grand County. Sen. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, told the committee that federal funds to help pay for other watershed restoration projects are also in the works. He had a $10 million amendment at the ready for those other projects, but said he would hold it until they know what they’re getting from the federal government.

But the relatively small amounts in the face of $750 million in mitigation needs troubled at least one lawmaker.

Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, raised concerns about whether there’s a comprehensive plan for dealing with the watershed projects.

“We will have water quality issues” when the snowmelt starts, more so for the communities impacted by the fires, he warned. “I want to make sure we have a plan on how to deal with water quality issues” from those fires.

“Four million dollars is not near enough, and I’m not sure an additional $10 million is near enough,” Sonnenberg said. “As we balance firefighting against mitigation, $15 million won’t get the water quality we need from all the damage we have.”

The committee also greenlighted Senate Bill 113 to allow the Division of Fire Safety and Prevention within the Department of Public Safety to spend $30.8 million on the purchase of a Firehawk helicopter and to lease a Type 1 chopper. It will take United Rotorcraft of Englewood a year to retrofit a Blackhawk helicopter into the Firehawk, which is why the division wants to lease a Type 1 chopper to have ready for the 2021 wildfire season.

The Type 1 chopper can carry at least 700 gallons of water in its buckets, but because it uses buckets it can’t fly over roads without closing those roads first, according to division director Mike Morgan. The Firehawk, on the other hand, can carry 1,000 gallons and does so with an enclosed container, making it more practical for urban fires, such as the Cherry Creek State Park and Bear Creek Lake Park fires earlier this month.

Sen. Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, one of the bill’s sponsors, told the committee that while the costs may seem exorbitant, this helicopter might not have been necessary a decade ago.

“We’re now facing longer fire seasons … and multiple massive fires at the same time in different parts of the state,” Fenberg said.

He said he doesn’t think the helicopters alone will fix the problem, and that the state needs to put just as much, if not more, on forest mitigation to ensure fires don’t turn into massive ones. “It’s a smart investment that is unfortunately necessary,” he said. 

The third bill, Senate Bill 49, would direct $1.5 million toward the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps Fund and $7.3 million, both in general fund dollars, for aviation resources within the division.