Guv skeptical of state-owned firefighting fleet

Hickenlooper wonders if benefit would justify the cost of tankers



Here are the eight bills the Colorado Legislature is considering that deal with wildfires:

■ HB1003: Exempts disaster relief workers from paying state income taxes from money earned responding to emergencies.

■ HB1004: Eliminate the Colorado Emergency Planning Commission and merge its duties with the Division of Fire Prevention and Control.

■ HB1007: Give counties authority to ban fireworks and limit agricultural burns during times of high fire danger.

■ HB1008: Provide state grants for forest health projects.

■ HB1009: Changes the state’s wildfire mitigation income tax deduction into a tax credit.

■ HB1010: Renames a “prescribed burn manager” as “certified burner” and clarifies that suppression actions will be taken to control an escaped prescribed fire.

■ SB8: Creates an Internet website to provide information about wildfires and how to mitigate them.

■ SB46: Creates a $3.25 million Local Firefighter Safety Grant Program.

■ SB47: Offers a $10,000 payment to the survivors of seasonal wildland firefighters who are killed in the line of duty.

Lawmakers also will consider two resolutions, which have no force of law. One honors firefighting “hotshots,” while the other honors the Colorado National Guard.

DENVER — Gov. John Hickenlooper questioned Thursday whether Sen. Steve King’s idea to create a state-owned firefighting aerial fleet is too expensive to justify its benefit.

Still, the idea is being considered in conjunction with neighboring states, the governor said in announcing other measures the Colorado Legislature is planning to take up to combat fires this summer.

“There is some reluctance from the other governors,” Hickenlooper said of the Grand Junction Republican’s idea. “They are concerned that the benefits don’t justify the costs. Some of these large tankers can cost $12,000 an hour deploying it.

“The real issue oftentimes is the fires we’ve had the most trouble with ... were high-wind events. Generally, a tanker can’t get up in that high wind. We’re looking right now and trying to go back over each of those (fires) we’ve had over the past several years and determine, if we had these (tankers) would they make a difference?”

King believes so, and said at the same event Hickenlooper and other Democrats were announcing their bills that those measures would be helpful, but don’t go as far as his more ambitious plan.

Currently, lawmakers are considering nine separate measures, none of which are designed to help firefighters actually put out fires.

One measure exempts firefighters from having to pay Colorado income taxes from money earned while battling blazes in the state; another allows counties to limit certain types of fires, such as agricultural burns, during times of red-flag warnings. Some county commissioners believe they already have that authority, but others don’t.

A few of the measures are aimed at preventing fires from starting in the first place, including one calling on the Colorado Water Resources & Power Development Authority to provide loans to private entities that want to conduct forest health projects.

The Wildfire Insurance and Forest Health Task Force created by the governor last year to examine what the state can do to deal with fires made several recommendations to Hickenlooper last September, including imposing strict fire-prevention building codes on homes located in the so-called rural-urban interface where many of the most devastating and deadly fires have occurred.

The eight measures include none of those recommendations.

Hickenlooper said many of that panel’s ideas were best done on the local level. The governor also is asking the Legislature for $78 million to fight fires, $48 million of which is to repay the fund used to fight last year’s fires.

Other Democrats who sat on a similar panel created by the Legislature last year said they preferred using a carrot approach to the issue.

“The (Legislature’s) Wildfire Matters Review Committee felt that it would be more effective to provide incentives for people to do the mitigation work that is required when you live in the wildland-urban interface, rather than being punitive in any way,” said Sen. Jeanne Nicholson, D-Black Hawk. “If that doesn’t work, we may revisit some ideas.”

Today, King is to introduce his bill to require the state to obtain four firefighting planes by 2015. In the meantime, it also calls on the state to pay $9 million to lease three firefighting helicopters for the 2014 fire season.

The measure requires several state agencies that are most impacted by fires to come up with the money to pay for those leases.


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