The wrong diagnosis regarding Colorado’s wildfire problems

It’s finally summer.

With our early heat and the inauspicious start to Colorado’s wildfire season, didn’t it seem as if the summer solstice occurred long before Friday?

“Staying at the Movie Manor,” my reporter son messaged late Sunday evening, confirming he learned something about work travel from his father.  The motel on the outskirts of Monte Vista, complete with nearby drive-in screen and movie audio in the rooms, has long been a favorite resting place when in the San Luis Valley.

I don’t think late-night film viewing was on Tony’s mind.

After a long stretch of 12- to 14-hour days covering the Black Forest and Royal Gorge fires for the Colorado Springs television station where he now works, Tony had a couple of days off. Then he began the shuttle between fires in South Fork and near Walsenburg. Current fire activity delayed presentation of the station’s report about the one-year anniversary of the Waldo Canyon fire, Colorado’s worst until Black Forest erupted a few weeks ago.

There are pluses and minuses to modern technology, we’ve found out. The positive is being able to view Tony’s reports on the station’s website and Facebook page.  The downside is seeing him point to the perch on a nearby ridge he’d been forced to move from earlier in the day because of approaching danger.

Parents appreciate confirmation their kids are safe. Knowing they may have been in peril ... not so much.

However hectic the life of our young reporter may be, it pales in comparison to what firefighters on the front lines are going through. In one report, our Paradise Hills neighbor, Tim Foley, was identified as the incident commander on one of the latest fires. And, thanks to Facebook, Tony learned that one of his Grand Junction High School classmates, Tim’s son, Todd, was somewhere on the lines fighting the Black Forest blaze.

Here’s what I’ve been wondering about as we’ve watched Tony’s stories on computer screens or seen the reporting by other media outlets: When will the focus turn from battling the symptoms of danger to doing something about the root causes?

In the Colorado Springs area, much has been made of the apparent rule that all local resources must be engaged before federal air tankers can be summoned. One of Tony’s days was spent with the pilots of those tankers, waiting anxiously for permission to take to the skies over Black Forest.

Politicians scurried to take credit once they were airborne. And there have been a spate of “I told you so” comments and a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking regarding lack of funding accompanying Sen. Steve King’s legislation creating a Colorado firefighting air corps.

Both instances, I submit, are the equivalent of your doctor throwing pills at your symptoms and ignoring your disease.

I’m pretty sure Tim and Todd would have appreciated earlier air support at Black Forest and more planes in the air. It is up for debate whether that support would have saved the two lives lost there or whether it would have had any appreciable impact on efforts to save the 800 or so homes that were lost in the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires.

What might have saved lives and homes, what could have meant fewer firefighters placed in lesser danger, what might have negated the need to quadruple federal firefighting budgets at the expense of other national forest and parks needs is a little more thought about risk, land use regulations and insurance practices.

Insurance settlements subsidized by all of our premiums are rebuilding most of the lost homes in Waldo Canyon, as they will in Black Forest. There’ll be calls for better fire protection, for creating defensible space, for access that’s easier and safer for fire crews and equipment. We’ll hear again about the need to use fire-retardant building materials.

If past is prologue, however, little will happen. Similar cries for insurance reforms, for the type of land use practices that, at a minimum, would make it safer to live out in these urbanized wild lands fell on deaf ears after Colorado’s disastrous 2002 fires.

It’s much easier, it seems, and certainly less taxing politically, to focus on reaction rather than prevention.

Jim Spehar, once part of the problem, also watched in recent weeks as the area between the two homes he once lived in near Evergreen was evacuated. Your thoughts are welcome at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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