COLORADO BILLS ALLOCATE TENS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS FOR WILDFIRE MITIGATION GRANTS

Originally Published by Hannah Metzger in Colorado Politics

Three bills introduced in the Colorado legislature aim to spend nearly $27.5 million over the next two years on grant programs to encourage mitigation strategies and combat more frequent and intense wildfires.

Lawmakers are set to tackle the bills less than two months after the Marshall fire — the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history — tore through Boulder County, burning over 6,000 acres and destroying more than 1,000 homes. Record-breaking wildfires have become more and more common in the state, with the three largest wildfires in Colorado history all occurring in 2020.

If passed, House Bills 1007, 1011 and 1012 would establish three separate grant programs, all intended to increase wildfire mitigation efforts through financial incentives. The Wildfire Matters Review Committee brought forth the three bills, plus two others focusing on increasing resources for volunteer firefighters and creating wildfire awareness campaigns.

“There’s just so much we need to do in the state in terms of wildfire,” said Rep. Lisa Cutter, committee chair and sponsor of four of the bills in the wildfire package, including HB-1011 and HB-1012. “We know, because of climate change, that they’re going to continue to burn more frequently and with more intensity. Wildfires aren’t going away, it's only going to get worse.”

Cutter, D-Littleton, said her district is one of the most at-risk areas in the country for wildfire damage. While the committee started working on its bill package last summer, she said the Marshall fire demonstrates how important the legislative measures are.

“Commitment has doubled down,” Cutter said. “We knew before what a dramatic and serious issue it was, but the Marshall fire just really brought that home. Awareness was really raised, which is unfortunate that it took something that scary and that traumatic.”

The most expensive bill of the bunch, HB-1011, would require $6.9 million in 2023 and just over $20 million in 2024 to match money that municipal or county governments raise for forest management or wildfire mitigation efforts. The grant program would fund efforts, notably forest thinning, wildfire fuel reduction and public outreach.

HB-1012 would add a supplementary grant program to the current Forest Restoration and Wildfire Risk Mitigation Grant Program. The new program would award grants to counties for wildfire prevention and recovery efforts that reduce the amount of carbon that enters the atmosphere. Eligible activities include wood removal and tree planting. By using the existing cash fund, the program would cost around $130,000 in administrative costs through 2024.

Finally, HB-1007 would create a grant program for recipients who conduct outreach among landowners in wildfire hazard areas about available resources and best practices for wildfire mitigation. The program would provide approximately 30 grants per year, averaging $10,000 each, to participating local government agencies, counties, municipalities, special districts, tribal agencies and nonprofit organizations.

“I want to make life better for those who experience the effects of fire and prevent future fires from happening,” said Rep. Donald Valdez, D-La Jara, sponsor of HB-1007 and HB-1012. “People in urban areas of the state are much more aware of the impacts of fires. People have seen that fires can be devastating to communities, not just forests.”

HB-1007 would also end a tax deduction for landowners to offset wildfire mitigation expenses, replacing it with an income tax credit beginning in 2023. The tax credit would reimburse 25% of the expenses — up to $625 per year — and would be available to landowners with taxable income of up to $120,000. The existing tax deduction covers 100% of expenses but will move to cover 50% in 2023 and 2024 if it is not replaced by the bill. The existing tax deduction is also scheduled to expire after 2024.

No entity formally opposes any of the three bills, but groups suggest several amendments.

The Colorado Municipal League wants to open HB-1012 to cities and counties, and the Nature Conservancy prefers to change the language of HB-1012 to clarify that post-wildfire dead tree removal should be prioritized around structures and roads where they create safety concerns. Colorado Counties, Inc. seeks to expand HB-1011 to local governments that don’t have funds designated for wildfire mitigation but have other designated resources.

“Only a handful of counties have been able to successfully pass such measures by local voters, but several more have long-term programs, projects or staff that are dedicated to wildfire mitigation,” Colorado Counties, Inc. said in a statement. "We can help ensure that more communities have the tools and resources to move the needle on wildfire risk."

Cutter said bill sponsors are considering the proposed changes. However, she said the funding requirement of HB-1011 is an important element and the intention is to make sure local governments are dedicated to wildfire mitigation efforts and “have some skin in the game.”

The House Energy and Environment Committee is scheduled to vote on the three bills on Feb. 17.

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