Panel OKs funds for wildfire prevention, fighting

DENVER — The Colorado Legislature is getting ready for this year’s fire season.

No, that doesn’t mean the 100 suit-wearing lawmakers will be donning fireproof jackets and oxygen masks, but they will do what they do best: spend money on it.

On Wednesday, the House Agriculture, Livestock & Natural Resources Committee approved three fire-related bills, including a measure to create a new $9.8 million matching grant program designed to reduce hazardous forest fuels in those areas where the most human development has occurred.

The measure, SB269, creates a competitive grant program that requires a 100 percent match for projects designed to reduce fire hazards, such as removing beetle-killed pine trees or underbrush in areas where humans frequent.

“This bill is geared toward protecting lives and property in the wildland-urban interface in the so-called red zone areas of high risk,” said Lisa Dale, assistant director for parks, wildlife and lands for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.

The measure includes a provision requiring the Colorado State Forest Service to help local governments determine what projects they can do and help them draft their grant applications.

While that measure is designed to prevent fires, another bill approved by the committee called for allocating additional money to combat them.

SB270 creates two new emergency funds, one to pay the initial costs of battling wildfires and the other to make sure firefighters know what they are doing in those battles.

The measure puts $500,000 into a new Wildfire Preparedness Fund, some of which would be used to create a comprehensive wildfire preparedness plan.

The other fund, the Wildfire Emergency Response Fund, would get $3.5 million from federal mineral lease payments. It would pay the initial costs of battling wildfires when they break out.

A third bill approved by the committee is a major one, but it received no money. It is Sen. Steve King’s measure to create an air-tanker firefighting fleet to combat major forest fires.

The Grand Junction Republican’s bill, initially estimated to cost about $17 million, would allow the Colorado Department of Public Safety to look into the idea of building a state-owned fleet using contract pilots to fly them.

All three bills head to the House Appropriations Committee for more debate.

Meanwhile, the full House approved SB82 creating a permanent interim legislative committee, the Wildfire Matters Review Committee, that each year would consider and proposed new measures for future legislatures to consider. The Legislature has several such committees, including ones that look at transportation and water measures.

That bill heads to Gov. John Hickenlooper for his approval.


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