FRISCO - In June, when the Waldo Canyon fire made an incredible surge over a ridge into the outlying neighborhoods of Colorado Springs, Governor John Hickenlooper boarded a helicopter and flew over the inferno.
"From a distance, it looked like several broad bands of forest fire," he told a group of about 50 people in Frisco Wednesday. "As we came in closer, we could see it wasn't trees, these were rows of homes that were burning so intensely ... It was more severe and disorienting than any movie set I could ever imagine."
The governor remembered the statewide pain of this summer's fire season at a well-timed wildfire and forest health forum Wednesday, as the local fire danger rating spike to 'very high' for the first time since July.
He commended Summit County for leading the state in aggressive measures to promote forest health.
While local communities have been actively pushing beetle-kill mitigation projects and defensible space, the state was taking action based on the lessons learned during a hard, hot summer.
State officials streamlined all the emergency entities, once strewn across state agencies, under the Department of Public Safety and is pushing to secure tools for Colorado that will improve wildfire response statewide, Hickenlooper said.
"We saw in the High Park Fire west of Fort Collins, that was a lightning strike that almost certainly smoldered for a day," he said. "For federal lands, there's a software system that can identify every lightning strike when it touches ground. If the federal government has that, why aren't we getting that information out to the counties?"
Within a month, the same technology had been secured for Colorado. Summit County is expected to have the system up and running in time for next year's fire season.
Local fire officials say it's impossible to monitor, let alone respond to every lightning strike, but knowing where the electricity is during a storm gives them an idea of what areas to watch for potential ignitions.
Summit County fire fighters say the state's improvements will help them, but local efforts are more important.
"It's definitely making the process cleaner," wildland firefighter Matt Benedict said. "But the biggest focus we're seeing is the focus on fuel management around homes, defensible space, clearing areas. As long as that continues to be supported by the state we're gong to see great (work)."
Summit County alone currently covers more than 140,000 acres of dead forest decimated by the mountain pine beetle epidemic. Projects removing those trees have been strategically placed to protect crucial watersheds and reduce the danger in heavily-used areas. Most of the mitigation projects have been the product of collaboration between the U.S. Forest Service, the state government, local governments and homeowners associations.
The governor also spent 45 minutes taking questions on topics ranging from ways to drive the lumber market to promote private-sector tree removal to how to overcome public fears about proscribed burns.
Summit County Commissioner Dan Gibbs presented the governor with a small bottle of bark beetles to thank him for the visit.