Mitigation around wildland homes is more effective than air support
If Sen. Steve King’s bill to establish a Colorado air tanker fleet had been funded when it passed, it would have made no difference in the tragic Black Forest fire. It could not have been funded before July 1. Even after funds are appropriated, putting planes in the air could take many months.
The air tanker bill authorized the purchase of up to three, 3,000-gallon capacity air tankers and three tactical aircraft. However, the bill was amended to make funding of the program discretionary in order for it to pass and be signed by the governor.
As the fire flared up, King twittered his colleague Sen. Greg Brophy, “Black Forest fire. ‘no aircraft available’ biggest failure of session. Had bi-partisan support. No leadership from Gov.”
King may be miffed about funding because his own plan for paying for the air fleet was rejected. He proposed turning a tragedy into a sponsored entertainment spectacle by selling advertising space on the tail, wings or fuselage of the aerial tankers.
“For example,” King told KUNC radio reporter Nathan Heffel, “the Colorado Rockies sign on the tail wing of a tanker. The advertising and so forth to offset the cost of those tankers.” This would be a win-win for both sides, King concluded.
He may be on to something. While the Rockies don’t seem a likely candidate for sponsoring forest fire suppression, some lumber company might pay handsomely for the opportunity. Or, insurance companies might recognize their logo on the tail of a firefighting plane as a unique marketing ploy.
Many Coloradans agree with the desirability of a state-controlled air tanker fleet, but anyone who has followed Colorado budget problems in recent years can understand why the governor didn’t prioritize the initial $17 million purchase and continuing $7 million annual operating and maintenance costs over other pressing state needs.
Brophy disagrees. “We identified numerous sources for the funds,” he told The Daily Caller. “We just had no leadership from the first floor, none. The governor failed to make basic security for folks in that urban interface a priority.”
In many instances of homes destroyed by the fast-moving fire, it was not the governor who failed the landowners in the Black Forest communities, but the homeowners themselves. “These home are throughout the trees,” Hickenlooper told The New York Times. “We knew there would be a lot of losses, a lot of damages. That’s just an inherent risk.”
Lt. Jeff Kramer of the El Paso County Sheriff’s office told reporters touring the burned area, “The homes that were burned had fuels or flammables closer to the homes, or up against them.”
By contrast, Kramer reported, the community of Cathedral Pines, where mitigation measures were in place even before home sites were sold, suffered little damage, and only one structure was lost.
“Before we even put any homes in Cathedral Pines at all,” the developer said, “we went in and did significant mitigation and took out virtually one in every three trees.”
After a similar fire last year, Colorado Springs officials, over the objection of some residents and elected officials who claimed it cost too much, passed more stringent fire codes for new and rebuilt structures in the urbanized foothills.
As Eddie Bracken, chairman of the Black Forest Fire Protection District, told a reporter for The New York Times, “There were plenty of incentives, but few requirements, for residents of the community to reduce the fire danger around their homes.”
“We don’t have an enforcement capability,” Bracken told the Times. “We shouldn’t. It’s personal property and individual rights. We don’t have the means or the desire to inflict a penalty on them.”
If King and his colleagues on both sides of the aisle are serious about fire safety in the urban/forest interface, they should address this laissez faire attitude that allows a selfish, careless or clueless homeowner to jeopardize his own and his neighbors’ property by ignoring commonsense mitigation measures against the inevitable wildfires that hit neighborhoods like Black Forest.
Mitigation may lack the glamour and excitement of Colorado air tankers festooned with corporate logos flying into the smoke and flames, but it offers the most realistic possibility of reducing the tragic loss of homes and businesses in the urban/wildland interface.