Originally Published by Nick Caltrain in The Denver Post
WITH THE DEVASTATING 2020 FIRE SEASON AND THE HISTORICALLY DESTRUCTIVE 2021 MARSHALL FIRE STILL FRESH IN MINDS, THERE’S A SPECIAL URGENCY IN THE WORK, MEMBERS OF THE LEGISLATURE’S STANDING WILDFIRE COMMITTEE SAID.
(TNS) - Stephanie Conners, like more than 350 of her neighbors near Grand Lake, didn’t lose her house during Colorado’s traditional fire season. It was October 2020, and the East Troublesome fire was bearing down on the first home Conners and her fiancé had ever owned, one they had bought just a year earlier. Snow, not ash, should have been falling on their car for that time of year, she said. But in a story that echoes from so many Coloradans, she was facing the reality of a wildfire with little regard for time of year and bearing down to burn away her livelihood. A slew of bills have been introduced into the state legislature this year in response to the tragedy Conners and thousands of other Coloradans have faced from recent wildfires, with more measures likely to come as the session continues. Most are still being workshopped or waiting their turn in the committee.
With the devastating 2020 fire season and the historically destructive 2021 Marshall fire still fresh in minds, there’s a special urgency in the work, members of the legislature’s standing wildfire committee said. “(The recent fires) just emphasizes and underlines the fact that we are in a constant wildfire risk period of time, and we have to be acutely aware of it all the time,” state Sen. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs and a committee member, said. Conners, who is now staying near Granby while she wrestles with her insurance company, isn’t sure what can be done. She talks with neighbors about the state removing trees killed by beetles to lessen the tinder in the forests, but appreciates that would take a logistical marvel. She appreciates the efforts by lawmakers, particularly one to address how insurance companies handle claims from declared fire disasters. But overall, she preaches preparedness.
“We’re seeing drier and drier seasons for longer,” Conners said. “Marshall shouldn’t have happened when it did. Ours shouldn’t have happened when it did. But with these extended seasons, and this continuous dry weather, it will happen again.” Here’s a look at some of what lawmakers hope to accomplish this session for fire preparedness and response. Underscored by Marshall, lawmaker wants to streamline insurance claims for fire disasters The East Troublesome fire in 2020 laid bare to state Rep. Judy Amabile, D-Boulder, the problem of underinsurance among Colorado homeowners. The fire scorched more than 190,000 acres of land, making it the second-largest by size in state history, and destroyed more than 300 homes. Fast forward to summer 2021, and Amabile was hearing from constituents, like Conners, still struggling against insurance companies to get paid out, getting tangled in red tape over interim housing costs and feeling like they were reliving the trauma by needing to meticulously inventory the pieces of their lives that had turned to ash in order to submit their insurance claims. As Conners recalled grabbing a go-bag and staying up all night listening to an emergency services scanner for any hint of her home’s fate, it was only when she started dealing with insurance that “the real nightmare began,” she said. She’s on the ninth insurance adjuster they’ve worked with since the loss, and Conners and her fiancé haven’t even been able to get in line yet on hiring contractors to begin the rebuilding process, she said. Meanwhile, their interim housing coverage runs up in November. “What do we even plan for?” Conners asked. House Bill 1111 aims to make it easier to file and receive initial claims for lost property, ease the inventory process and extend housing reimbursement, among other things, when a loss is declared as part of a declared fire disaster. “(Mass property loss in a fire disaster) makes it much harder to recover,” Amabile said. “It’s harder to find a place to rent, it’s harder to get your building permits approved, it’s harder to find a builder and an architect, and it’s also harder to get your claim through the insurance company because they’re also overwhelmed with claims.” The Marshall fire underscores the need for this type of legislation, she said. Homes lost to fire disasters still account for a small percentage of total insurance claims, including things like hail, but the mass trauma they inflict is dramatic, she said. “Obviously, it made it feel more urgent, what happened in the Marshall fire,” Amabile said of the bill. “It pointed out that no one is immune from this kind of thing happening to them. If it can happen in Louisville , it can happen anywhere.” Since so many people are susceptible to natural disasters, the bill has drawn the attention of insurers since its inception. Lyn Elliott, an assistant vice president for trade association American Property Casualty Insurance Association, said she’s been working with Amabile since the fall. On Wednesday afternoon, the group moved its official positions from skepticism of the bill to support if amended, though Elliott declined to elaborate out of respect for private negotiations. She said the big concern is making sure any changes to disaster insurance don’t disrupt a marketplace already grappling with billions of dollars of claims in the past several years — including a $2.3 billion hailstorm in 2017 and the estimated $1 billion claim payout from Marshall alone — and the rising costs all consumers face. Behind the dollar amounts are individual claims for the companies to evaluate, and adjusters who are tasked with what seems to be an ever-rising number of disasters. Or, in short, they face their own logistical bottleneck. Elliott’s group’s primary concern is moving too far, too fast, while circumstances are so volatile. “We anticipate there will be more legislation introduced specific to the Marshall fire that will either directly or indirectly address how insurers are responding,” Elliott said. “Now is not the time to take drastic legislative steps that would cause any instability in Colorado’s insurance market, because consumers lose if insurers can’t compete in the marketplace.” An effort to tend to existing burn scars — and use science to minimize new ones The Waldo Canyon Fire burned into the memory of Democratic state Rep. Marc Snyder in 2012, as it did for thousands of others. But it wasn’t the flames themselves that wreaked so much havoc on his hometown of Manitou Springs, where he was then mayor. The fire’s burn scar, where soil-retaining foliage is seared away, left a landscape vulnerable to the next deluge of rain. That deluge came about a year later, in the form of a half-inch of water that fell in about 20 minutes. Without vegetation to hold the ground in place and soak up the rain, a wall of mud and debris tore through the town. It claimed dozens of buildings and killed a resident who played a “beloved Santa Clause” at a local holiday attraction, Snyder said. He hopes to increase reseeding efforts for burn scars by expanding the state forest service tree nursery with a bill he plans to introduce soon. The changing climate hampers the ability for some burn areas to bounce back, he said, citing still-barren parts of the Hayman fire from 2002. If enacted, among other things, he hopes the bill will spur new research into best practices and increase the number of saplings ready to stabilize burn scars. “You drive through (the Hayman) fire, and it was 20 years ago now, it looks like it was yesterday,” Snyder said. “It just hasn’t grown back because of changing precipitation levels and other factors. That’s what worries me.” Lawmakers aim to encourage mitigation with matching grants In House Bill 1011, which Snyder introduced with Rep. Lisa Cutter, D-Littleton, he hopes to encourage local governments to bolster their efforts at fighting wildfire with a state matching grant. Broadly speaking, a local government would need to have a dedicated funding source for fire mitigation to qualify for a matching slice of money from the state forest service. A fiscal analysis predicts it would cost about $20 million in its first full year, beginning July 1, 2023. What qualifies as mitigation would be broadly defined and left to the local government, Snyder said. The state’s ecosystem is too diverse to prescribe solutions. The bill has not been scheduled for a committee hearing yet, the first step to possible passage into law. Snyder doubts this will be the only bill to deal with raw dollars and cents, especially with the amount of federal money from the American Rescue Plan Act and bipartisan infrastructure law that passed last year, though what those details look like haven’t been made public. Awareness, fuel management draw additional focus With three months left in the session, more bills aimed at wildfire mitigation and response will almost certainly be introduced. So far, Senate Bill 007, introduced by Lee and Sen. Tammy Story, D-Evergreen, has made it the furthest with party-line passage in an initial state senate committee. That bill aims to create a wildfire awareness month to keep the danger — and, more importantly, Lee said, the importance of protecting from the danger — top of mind. “We have a big wildfire, people engage in mitigation efforts, two or three years pass and they think, ‘I’ve taken care of this,’” Lee said. “But the thing about growing things is, they keep growing. So we need to engage in constant mitigation efforts.” Mitigation and awareness are important aspects of wildfire management, state Rep. Perry Will, R-New Castle and a member of the wildfire committee, but not the only part. He’s planning to run a bill he called a right-to-burn bill to allow private landowners to make controlled burns on their property to help control the amount of fuel for fires. “We’ve subdued fires for so long that now we have these mega-fires,” Will said. Land management, including proper timber harvest and grazing, needs to coexist with a focus on preservation, he said. Will noted a colleague, Rep. Mike Lynch, R-Wellington, is running House Bill 1166 to promote the timber industry, which Will said could help with forest and fuel management. Fire management will need education, awareness, planning, mitigation and preparation, Will said. And while he encouraged those efforts, it’s Mother Nature’s cooperation, for better of ill, that will define wildfires in Colorado. But Mother Nature is Mother Nature, and its influence on conditions lawmakers seek to address can’t be overstated. “We get a fire, and people tend to think you can throw money at it and equipment at it,” Will said, naming helicopters and water trucks and praising the efforts by wildland firefighters. “But no matter what fire we get, Mother Nature bats last.