After about two years of work, a special committee this week delivered its recommendations to the Colorado General Assembly’s interim Wildfire Matters Review Committee.
Created in 2012, the group — called the Advisory Committee to the Director of the Division of Fire Prevention and Control on Wildland Fire and Prescribed Fire Matters — includes about a dozen representatives from the state’s firefighting community. It was tasked with reviewing the challenges facing Colorado in regards to both wildland and prescribed fires, and with make recommendations to the legislature’s interim committee about possible policy action.
Summit County Commissioner Dan Gibbs, who also is a certified wildland firefighter, serves as vice chairman of the committee, which delivered its recommendations to lawmakers on Monday.
The committee’s overarching goal was to investigate ways to ensure wildfires in the state are contained to 100 acres or less, thus avoiding another season of megafires that devastated the Front Range a couple of years ago, Gibbs said.
A needs assessment and the development of a business plan to upgrade the interoperable communications and state digital trunked radio system is paramount to meeting that goal, he said.
“All of the recommendations we made are important, but making sure we have a sound communications system is not only important for firefighter safety, but also in ensuring everyone working a fire is on the same page,” Gibbs said.
Other notable recommendations in the report include the extension of grant programs through the Colorado Department of Natural Resources and the state Forest Service to provide financial assistance to communities for wildfire mitigation and reforestation projects. The report recommends that such programs not block prescribed burn operations when such action is deemed to be the most efficient course for hazardous fuels reduction or forest restoration, and that state employees conducting prescribed burns be granted immunity from civil penalties when those fires get out of control.
The report also recommends, at a cost of $2.5 million over the next two years, an expansion of the number of Type 3 All Hazard Incident Management Teams from five to eight.
“Type 3 teams come at a cost that is much cheaper to the state and local communities,” Gibbs said. “They’re equipped to handle smaller fires, which — when combined with other recommendations such as improved communications — will provide a cost-efficient approach to keeping wildfires under 100 acres.”
The report also asks the legislature to repeal a measure providing property owners who conduct wildfire mitigation projects with a $2,500 state income tax deduction and replace it with a $2,500 income tax credit. Gibbs penned legislation for the income tax deduction when serving in the state legislature, but admitted to overlooking the need to provide financial incentives to property owners conducting mitigation projects who are not collecting an income because they are retired.
Last, the report recommends the legislature allocate $11.7 million in annual funding to the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps to maintain a mix of firefighting aircraft in its fleet. The Air Corps this year received $19.75 million for the onetime purchase of two wildfire surveillance aircraft. The inspection and purchase of the first aircraft was completed last week, according to a recent report by the Sierra Nevada Corp., the contractor and operator of the two aircraft.
Despite a recovering economy, the state is still a long way from remedying its total financial picture, especially after drastic cuts to public school and transportation funding during the recession. Taking those challenges in mind, Gibbs said he expects the legislature consider the most cost-effective recommendations during the next session.
“This is the second time the advisory committee has made recommendations and last year we saw some of those recommendations turn into legislative action,” Gibbs said. “In lean times, the most realistic bills to pass are the ones that don’t cost a ton of money, so I think they’ll continue providing grant funding for mitigation projects and take on our recommendation to increase the number of Type 3 management teams.”
As for upgrading the state’s communications system, Gibbs said he is hopeful lawmakers will draft legislation during the next session, but no one knows yet what the cost will be. A feasibility study is currently underway, with a report scheduled for delivery sometime in November.