Governor: Climate change intensifies threat of wildfire

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, right, speaks Thursday about a range of issues with Derek Thompson, a senior editor at The Atlantic, during the Aspen Ideas Festival.

ASPEN — Removal of beetle-killed trees and defensible-space improvements by homeowners can help reduce Colorado’s wildfire problems, but the contributing factor of climate change shouldn’t be ignored either, Gov. John Hickenlooper said Thursday.

A changing climate is generating enormous costs both in Colorado’s forests and in coastal areas elsewhere in the United States, Hickenlooper said in an appearance at the Aspen Ideas Festival.

“The drought and temperature disruption has huge potential consequences,” Hickenlooper said.

His lunchtime interview with Derek Thompson, an editor with The Atlantic, was billed as focusing on innovation, entrepreneurship and other aspects of economic development. But Thompson and audience members from across the country asked him about a wide range of topics that recently have put Colorado and Hickenlooper in the national news, from gun control to his political future to the fires that have besieged sizable swaths of the state.

“This morning I flew down over Pagosa Springs and South Fork and it’s grim,” Hickenlooper said in reference to the burning forests there. “… They haven’t lost a structure yet but the smoke down there, it’s just miserable. They’ve got a lot of people that have been out of their homes for I think five days now.”

He said one lesson from fires a year ago in the state was for local communities to quickly ask for state and federal help when needed. As a result, that help is now coming in a matter of hours rather than days.

While agencies can do more to trim beetle-killed forests, there are million of acres of such forests in the state and it would take hundreds of millions of dollars to deal with them all, he said. He also noted that last year’s destructive Waldo Canyon and High Park fires weren’t fueled by big stands of dead timber.

He said people shouldn’t have wood shake roofs or wooden decks against their houses and should clear vegetation near their homes.

“Do what we call defensible space because that will dramatically reduce the losses,” he said.

But he added, “It does not reduce the fires.”

He said he thinks climate change is occurring, and even if its occurrence is a matter of high probability rather than fact, it’s worth spending tens of millions of dollars to combat it. Fighting this year’s destructive Black Forest Fire in Colorado cost $10 million, he noted.

Hickenlooper acknowledged that it has been an eventful six months or so for the state and him, thanks to high-profile issues such as gun control, marijuana legalization, capital punishment and hydraulic fracturing. Thompson noted recent polling suggesting it would be a close race if Republican Tom Tancredo challenges Hickenlooper in next year’s gubernatorial race.

Hickenlooper said he thinks the last half year shows how he tries to be apolitical and to focus on the facts.

Hickenlooper elaborated on a number of issues:

■ He defended his decision to grant a death penalty reprieve, but not full clemency, to killer Nathan Dunlap. He questioned using the death penalty against someone with bipolar disorder, cited the high cost of pursuing the death penalty, and said its use doesn’t reduce murder rates in states that regularly use it. Saying his view on the death penalty has changed over the years, he said, ““I didn’t think it was appropriate for me to overrule the people of Colorado because they haven’t come around on this.”

■ Explaining his signing of Colorado’s law requiring background checks on gun sales, he said history shows criminals try to buy guns in Colorado.

“You can’t argue that this doesn’t work, right, that this isn’t a significant benefit, that the cost, for 10 bucks per transaction, doesn’t dramatically reduce the number of guns in people’s hands that shouldn’t have them.”

■ Asked about water used in hydraulic fracturing, he noted that it’s less than half a percent of the state’s total water use, but added that suburban water use for things such as green lawns is a far bigger challenge.

■ He said the state will be applying heavy restrictions on the recreational marijuana industry just as it has medical pot.

■ He hailed Colorado’s attractiveness to young adults, many of whom he said are “nerds” and “geeks” who are involved in entrepreneurship.


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