HOW TO PROTECT LOCAL COMMUNITIES FROM WILDFIRES

By Lisa Cutter and Marc Snyder

  • Feb 4, 2022 Updated Feb 4, 2022

The reality in Colorado seems to be not if a wildfire will reach any one of our communities, but when. As demonstrated in the tragic Marshall Fire, no person, no home and no neighborhood is immune.

Like many of the things that put our health and economy in danger, this is a complex issue, but there are science-based solutions to help. To minimize the damage of wildfires, experts agree that increased mitigation is a critical tool.

Our mountain communities know this all too well and have mobilized for many years to press forward with the work. Unfortunately, they have been woefully underfunded in their efforts. For perspective, the Colorado State Forest Service estimates that our mitigation efforts are underfunded by $4.2 billion. By their calculation, there are 3.8 million acres of forestland where Coloradans currently live and which need mitigation. Between 2008-2017 Colorado mitigated just 171,000 acres of forestland, only 6% of the work that needs to be done. We have a long way to go, and the need is only becoming more urgent.

In 2012, the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs destroyed 347 homes and cost an estimated $454 million. It took nearly seven years to fully rebuild. Until the Marshall Fire, this was the costliest fire in Colorado history, and that is only measured in dollars, not in the toll fire takes on the people who lose their homes and communities, or in the negative health impacts — to people and our planet — that are difficult to quantify but no less important. The Waldo Canyon Fire should have taught us a lesson about the importance of mitigation, particularly as it applies to the wild land urban interface — that geography where more dense housing found in urban areas meets more wild terrain. In the Colorado Springs tragedy, the Cedar Heights neighborhood was able to mitigate against fire. That neighborhood survived with no lives or homes lost. The nearby Mountain Shadows neighborhood could not mitigate. That neighborhood lost two residents and 141 of its 178 homes.

Seven of Colorado’s 10 most extreme wildfires have occurred in the last decade. As our planet gets hotter and drier, wildfires are increasing in frequency and intensity. There is no reason to believe that either the extreme weather that fuels these fires or the development practices that make them more catastrophic for more people will change anytime soon.

This year, state lawmakers are considering a package of bills that would begin to tackle this problem. These bills include support for volunteer firefighters, increased outreach and mitigation support for individual homeowners and additional funding for mitigation efforts in counties with large forested areas via a matching grant program with the state.

There is much work to be done, and we are going to have to devote the necessary resources to make a meaningful impact. With escalating impacts of climate change and increasing fire danger coming to a head, it's clear that Colorado simply hasn’t invested enough. That’s why we’re supporting the wildfire mitigation package and have introduced HB22-1011 (Wildfire Mitigation Incentives For Local Governments), which will help local communities plan for, and fund, mitigation work over the long term. This bill will create a sustainable funding source by incentivizing communities to create a dedicated funding stream for mitigation projects, which could then be eligible for a state match. And the long-term nature of the funding would allow the growth of businesses and jobs in this industry, thus providing economic benefit in participating communities.

We recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to mitigation. What works for communities near drought-stricken grassland areas such as the Marshall Fire setting, is different from mitigation strategies for mountain communities. Local communities know best which wildfire mitigation strategies work for their area, and they deserve to control the work they’re doing.

It is critical to up our investment and build resiliency in our communities, and HB22-1011 will help. We know wildfires will continue to increase in frequency and intensity. People will be displaced, lives will be lost, communities and local economies destroyed. We cannot wait any longer.

Lisa Cutter, a Democrat from Evergreen, represents District 25 in the Colorado state House. Marc Snyder, a Democrat from Manitou Springs, represents District 18 in the Colorado state House. Many of their constituents live in the wildland-urban interface.

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