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Wildfire-prevention ideas don’t find love in Denver

Building codes, fees, mandates prove unpopular

DENVER – Recommendations from Gov. John Hickenlooper’s wildfire task force are largely gathering dust at the Capitol as legislators focus on less controversial ways to prevent forest fires.

Hickenlooper and legislators touted their fire agenda at a news conference Thursday, a package of nine bills that focuses on grants and tax incentives for homeowners to clear hazardous brush from their land.

“It’s not forcing, it’s just incentivizing it. What you’ll see from the bills introduced in the House, that’s going to be the theme,” said Rep. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette.

But the governor’s own wildfire task force called for much stronger measures in its report late last year. It recommended a statewide building code for houses in the forest, a fee on forest property owners, requirements for homeowners to create defensible space, and an upgrade of the state’s online wildfire risk map to enable it to assess the risk for individual homes.

All of these ideas face resistance at the Legislature and won’t be acted on this year.

Fire officials who followed the task force think it has been ignored, said Keith Worley, a fire-prevention specialist who closely followed the governor’s task force.

“There has been little or no response from the governor’s office. A lot of us are really puzzled by that,” Worley said.

He called the legislative package “pretty anemic.”

Worley, president of Pikes Peak Wildfire Prevention Partners, was the main author of a report released Thursday on the Black Forest Fire, which destroyed or damaged more than 500 homes last summer. That report echoes the governor’s task force by taking a tough stance against homeowners who let their land get crowded with dangerous brush.

Worley was “absolutely horrified at the level of risk firefighters were forced to take to try to save as many homes as they could in the Black Forest Fire.”

With so much proof about the benefits of clearing brush and creating defensible space, Worley said homeowners who don’t do it are guilty of “willful blindness.”

“Will that be applied to the state Legislature as well? Based on their current legislation, they have ignored it,” he said.

Hickenlooper said there’s no need for mandates like a statewide building code, because local governments already understand the risk.

“We don’t need to lean on them with a heavy shoulder. I think incentives are going to work better than imposing fees and surcharges. Let’s do the incentives. We’ll measure our success, see what kind of coverage we’re going to get, and then we’ll go from there,” he said.

Another member of Hickenlooper’s task force, Lyle Laverty, also is disappointed that the Legislature hasn’t taken action on the group’s recommendations.

“I think they were going to be pretty tough to move forward. But I look at the situation we have now in Colorado, and we’ve got to get serious,” said Laverty, the former top Forest Service official in the region.

jhanel@durangoherald.com

An earlier version of this story didn’t mention that Lyle Laverty is retired from the top Forest Service position in the region.

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