Wildfire efforts off target
Coloradans today have expressed hope that pending wildfire legislation will be revised to focus federal wildfire prevention efforts on protecting homes and safeguarding the lives of rural residents.
The House Resources Committee is scheduled to consider wildfire legislation Wednesday in Washington, D.C.
More than one million Colorado residents live in the forested foothills of the Front Range, the Western Slope and central mountains of the state, making community risk mitigation the No. 1 priority of any federal agency wildfire strategy.
“We want Congress to give us the tools we need to protect our communities,” said Tom Hoffman, a red card certified firefighter in Jefferson County. “Now is the time to focus our attention on creating defensible space, thinning and removing fuel around our homes.”
With more than 80,000 residents evacuated and hundreds of homes destroyed, Colorado’s 2002 fire season demonstrated much should be considered in providing a safe environment for firefighters to effectively protect property.
“We made a choice to live here,” said Durango-area homeowner Glenn Sears. “We understand what the risk is and how to make ourselves less vulnerable and we’re willing to do the work. We’re just hoping the resources get to the communities that need the help. It’d be a shame if that energy went elsewhere.”
With federal and state coffers strapped for cash this year, budget shortfalls may jeopardize funding for such community support.
The onus is on the federal government to provide that support in the most cost-effective way.
Priorities in federal legislation must therefore place community safety at a premium, focusing limited manpower and money where it will do the most good- on communities at the private and state level – rather than logging projects in the backcountry.
“With state and federal budgets tight, every dollar counts,” said Sandy Shea, public lands director for the High Country Citizens Alliance, based in Gunnison County. “Investing money and resources where they are needed most and where they will be the most effective – around homes and communities – will provide the best returns.”
Efforts in crafting a solution to the wildfire problem stalled last year as the focus of the debate shifted from community safety on private property to reworking environmental and public participation laws on federal lands.
“Two wildfire camps seem to have developed in Washington,” said Jeff Berman, director of Colorado Wild. “One draws on the widespread consensus that the vast majority of lands at risk are non-federal lands around communities, and that we should direct resources to states and communities to reduce fire risk within this Community Protection Zone.
“The other camp refuses to acknowledge these facts, intent on adopting legislation that will fail to steer funds to the areas of greatest need, but all the while promoting logging in the backcountry. Responsible legislation needs to specifically prioritize state and private community risk reduction,” Berman said.
Colorado conservation groups cite the recently released 2003 wildfire bill drafted by Rep. Scott McInnis of Grand Junction as a misguided example of the latter.
In the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003, four lines of a 47-page bill discuss prioritization for communities and watersheds.
Yet this prioritization specifically falls under the title of hazardous fuels reduction on federal lands far from communities at risk.
McInnis’ bill also seeks both to rewrite environmental and public participation laws, an unnecessary provision that does nothing to provide immediate assistance to states and communities, and steer efforts towards battling insects and disease in the backcountry well away from homes.
Nonetheless, Coloradans remain optimistic that a community-focused, consensus-driven bill will emerge this year.
“Even as the spring rains continue, we know that fire is not far behind,” Berman said. “Locally we know what the problems and solutions are. We’re just waiting for Washington to catch up.”
This commentary was submitted by Jeff Berman of Colorado Wild and Sandy Shea of the High Country Citizens Alliance.
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