State Sen. Ellen Roberts said her fellow legislators need to place a higher priority on funding programs to prevent and fight wildfires.
Roberts, R-Durango, led a meeting Monday of about 25 local officials at the La Plata County Courthouse.
She said there is a “huge disconnect between people on the front lines and people moving state dollars into columns.”
She also said the state government, with its $20 billion annual budget, can adequately fund wildfire measures if it wants to.
“I would push back on the idea that we can’t possibly afford to do this right,” she said. “Priorities get funded, and if this is a priority, we’ll take care of it.”
Emergency responders said better communications is their top priority. During wildfires, federal, state and local personnel often can’t communicate, they said. The officials said digital and VHF communications are unreliable, especially in mountainous areas.
Durango Police Chief Jim Spratlen called communications “the number one priority for us, or people are going to die. It’s that simple.”
Recent fires in Colorado Springs and Fort Collins have raised awareness among legislators and voters in those areas about wildfire danger, Roberts said. That could translate into greater political support for wildfire funding.
“We have a greater number of Coloradans who understand what we’ve understood for decades,” she said.
Roberts cautioned against waiting for help from the federal government. “I spent all last week in Washington, D.C., so I’m very jaded this week,” she said. “I don’t know what they’re doing.”
Roberts said she hasn’t given up on federal help, but she added, “We can’t wait.”
Policymakers are also debating whether to give local officials greater power to clear weeds, brush and trees from private land, and then bill the property owner.
A bill that would do that has yet to attract a sponsor in the Legislature. “It’s pretty heavy-handed,” Roberts said.
La Plata County Commissioner Julie Westendorff said it “might be premature to actually grant that authority to counties.”
Fire officials complain that some property owners let inflammable plant materials build up on their land, placing themselves and their neighbors at risk.
Pam Wilson, executive director of Firewise of Southwest Colorado, said the nonprofit has had success with efforts to work with homeowners. Firewise recommends simple steps such as clearing brush from underneath trees and removing branches that hang over homes.
“We find people are really, really receptive to that,” she said.