Legislation offers start on wildfire protection
The bills highlighted by Gov. John Hickenlooper Thursday to deal with the costly and life-threatening problems caused by wildfires in this state are a reasonable starting point in attacking the issue.
However, Hickenlooper could have offered a much more comprehensive program, based on the recommendations issued last September by his own wildfire and insurance task force.
We realize that not all of those recommendations were likely to win legislative approval, but none of them was included in the bills presented last week.
It’s also interesting that now — in an apparent role reversal — it’s Republicans in the Legislature who are calling for more state spending on aircraft for wildfire protection.
Democrats say it should be entirely up to local elected bodies to set building and development standards in the urban-wildlands interface areas. Those are forest and high-desert locations where so many rural homes are built and where agencies devote the bulk of their wildfire-fighting resources.
Hickenlooper’s task force recommended the state establish baseline standards for development in the interface, which could be amended by local governments. That’s not unreasonable, and there is a precedent in other cases, such as setting a minimum of 35-acre plots in the most rural areas of the state.
But the governor and Democratic leaders in the Legislature have chosen not to go that route.
The task force also suggested the possibility of a new fee, collected by the state but shared with affected communities, for new homes constructed in the urban-wildlands interface. That money could help communities pay not only to fight wildfires, but also to undertake prevention measures before fires occur. It makes sense that those who choose to build in more fire-prone areas should pay more for the services they require.
It’s no surprise that the governor and lawmakers wouldn’t be eager to endorse any tax measure during an election year. But we still believe the idea has merit and should be considered.
Other bills the governor and lawmakers of both parties presented Thursday include one to exempt emergency workers from state income taxes for income earned responding to emergencies; one to provide state grants for forest health measures; and another to offer $10,000 to the survivors of emergency workers killed fighting wildfires.
As for Sen. Steve King’s and other Republicans’ demand that the state obtain its own fleet of firefighting aircraft, we can’t fault the governor for being concerned about the cost of maintaining such a fleet, especially when other Western governors are reluctant to join in making it a regional fleet.
Hickenlooper wants to review the conditions that prevailed in the most devastating of Colorado’s recent wildfires to determine which, if any, could have been more quickly controlled if a state air fleet had been available, and which erupted during high-wind conditions when aircraft couldn’t have been used. That’s a reasonable option before spending millions on aircraft.