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Colorado leaders take moderate approach on wildfire

8:13 PM, Jan 23, 2014   |    comments
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A firefighter from Central Calaveras Fire Department works at the Rim Fire. More than 1,000 firefighters are battling the blaze. Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

DENVER - Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-Colorado) threw his support behind eight bills working through the state legislature, aimed at improving wildfire prevention and response.

The legislation is modest by comparison to some recommendations made by the governor's own wildfire task force.

For instance, that group explored a carrot-and-stick approach to getting property owners to create defensible space to reduce the risk of losing homes.

Instead, lawmakers are looking at strengthening tax incentives for owners who do that sort of work. They envision a tax credit for such work, rather than a tax deduction.

"I think incentives are going to work better rather than imposing fees and surcharges," Hickenlooper said.

While offering the proverbial carrot, the governor stopped short of ruling out using the stick someday in the future.

"Let's do the incentives, we'll measure our success, see what kind of coverage we're going to get, and then go from there," Hickenlooper said.

Between the media coverage of increasingly devastating fires and pressure from insurance companies, the governor predicted that incentives would go far.

While he has not thrown his support behind statewide building standards for wildfire-prone areas, the governor did predict more local governments will elect to make some forms of fire mitigation mandatory.

"I think we're going to see a dramatic increase," Hickenlooper said. "First in terms of counties and municipalities imposing stricter requirements and expectations around how you protect homes in the wildland urban interface and then, how individuals themselves respond."

The package of bills also includes a proposal to allow government loans to private landowners in order to fund more forest thinning projects (HB 1008.)

Notably absent from the list of bills was a proposal to create a state-level fleet of firefighting aircraft.

Gov. Hickenlooper has expressed interest in the idea, but reiterated that his "preference would be to have a number of western states share that cost."

To that end, he's held meetings with the Western Governors Association exploring the idea of an inter-state fleet, though Hickenlooper admits some of his counterparts are "reluctant," concerned about whether the benefits would justify the cost.

"We know [aircraft] work on occasion," Hickenlooper said. "We know other times you can fly a hundred runs and the only thing that really stops that fire is the wind changes, it gets to a geographic boundary."

The governor also stressed the importance of having ground crews and trucks ready to respond from relatively close locations when fires begin.

Backers of a state air fleet would rather see Colorado simply take the lead and start acquiring aircraft.

"My experience with bureaucracies is you don't get anything done," Sen. Steve King (R-Grand Junction) said. "This a clear and present danger. We need to take action. We don't need a lot of bureaucracy to go through with other states. I'm sorry, I don't believe that is a viable option."

Over time he has proposed everything from state lottery funds to advertising on the planes to make it happen.

"There are a number of ways to offset the costs of this fleet," Sen. Steve King (R-Grand Junction) said. "I don't want to dwell on expense as much as I want to dwell on necessity. We are one lightning strike, one errant match strike, one terrorist match strike away from a catastrophic fire in Colorado."

Among the bills put forward on Thursday is a $3 million series of grants to buy better equipment for fire crews (SB 46) and a modest death benefit to be paid to any firefighter who dies on duty in the state (SB 47.)

Some lawmakers want to give counties the power to enact bans on burning, including agricultural burns, during high fire danger. That idea is being debated in the form of HB 1007.

(KUSA-TV © 2014 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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