Summit County’s preparedness to respond to a large-scale wildfire and how the federal government might help with that burden were among the topics of conversation Sunday, Feb. 9 when U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., met with local firefighting officials in Frisco.
Specifically, Udall met with members of the Summit County Wildfire Council, a group of town, state and federal officials chaired by Summit County Commissioner Dan Gibbs.
Gibbs, an on-call wildland firefighter, said the meeting was productive and that local officials outlined for Udall some local success stories, such as the drafting of the Summit County Community Wildfire Protection Plan.
That plan, Gibbs said, serves as a blueprint for how Summit County’s three fire protection districts work with state and federal firefighting agencies. It also identifies key areas for wildfire mitigation projects, which focus on populated neighborhoods to preserve life, homes and critical infrastructure.
Because Summit County encompasses local, state and federal lands, Gibbs said local officials stressed the importance of having good communication and coordination among various firefighting agencies in the event of a catastrophic fire.
But Gibbs said local officials also identified a number of challenges facing Summit County, particularly in regards to funding wildfire mitigation projects. Despite record snowpack, Gibbs said there is a tendency for increased fine fuels, such as grasses, following heavy winter snowfalls.
During the spring thaw, grasses tend to grow tall, but dry out in the summer when water becomes scarce. Summer-time temperatures coupled with tall, dry grasses creates ideal conditions for grass fires, Gibbs said
“It’s hard for people to think, with 11 feet of snow, that we need to start preparing for wildfires in Summit County,” Gibbs said. “If those fine fuels dry out and ignite in the summer, grass fires have a tendency to run, which could put other areas of the county at risk.”
Another challenge facing Summit County is timber. According to the Colorado State Forest Service, there are more than 155,000 acres of dead trees in Summit County. With limited funding available, local officials said they would need federal help to fund wildfire mitigation projects.
Mike Saccone, a spokesman for Sen. Udall, said the Colorado lawmaker has been working on legislation aimed at changing the way the federal government allocates wildfire funding, which is typically distributed during and after a major emergency. Many of Udall’s bills would free up federal funding for prevention and mitigation projects, Saccone said.
“The senator understands that it’s a matter of when, not if Colorado will have to fight another massive wildfire,” Saccone said. “Sen. Udall’s legislation is based on the idea of changing the way we budget to prevent wildfires, rather than borrowing funds from other sources to fight a wildfire.
“The cheapest fire is the one we don’t have to fight. Every dollar we can invest in fuel mitigation reduces the amount of money we’ll have to spend when a fire breaks out.”
Sen. Udall, who sits on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, discussed some of those bills Sunday, Gibbs said, including Senate Bill 13-96, which would carve out 15 percent of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s budget to fund wildfire prevention projects.
Udall also has introduced legislation to permanently reauthorize the Stewardship Contracting Program, Saccone said.
“We’re working on legislation to improve access to funds for fuel mitigation projects, such as the biomass power plant in Gypsum,” Saccone said. “Sen. Udall also is trying to increase funding for Colorado’s timber industry to turn pine beetle-killed trees into profit and increase jobs.”