DENVER – Colorado could turn to an expensive, technologically complicated computer system to measure the risk of wildfires for houses in the forest.
Or firefighters could use a pile of rocks and a couple cans of paint.
The state Capitol is abuzz this week with ideas for coping with the increasing wildfire crisis, and many of the ideas center on making homeowners take responsibility for the risks they assume by living at the edge of the forest.
On Monday, Gov. John Hickenlooper’s wildfire task force recommended a fee on forest houses, plus an upgraded computer system to assign risk values from one to 10 for individual homes.
State Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, said she has not had time to study the report in depth.
“In a very brief skim of it, there are a number of proposals that are more heavy-handed than I think we should attempt without trying other things first,” Roberts said.
On Tuesday, legislators heard from Hickenlooper’s group, plus several fire officials and citizens.
Firefighters used to use a low-tech version of the wildfire risk map. When a wildfire hit, they would make a quick evaluation of each property. Those that could be defended got a green rock in the driveway. Those where the brush was too thick got a red rock, and fire engines would pass them by, said Gary Briese, executive director of the Colorado State Fire Chiefs.
Fire departments don’t really use the red rock-green rock system anymore because of complaints from homeowners, Briese said. But he thinks homeowners will need to accept more risk and responsibility.
“Our implicit promise to the citizens of the state of Colorado is if you have an emergency, call us and we will come. This is one of those situations where we have to put a caveat on that,” Briese said.
Fixing the state’s troubled emergency radio system is the top priority for both the fire chiefs association and an advisory group to the Department of Public Safety.
The Legislature needs to provide funds to maintain and upgrade the digital radio system, said Mike Morgan, president of Colorado State Fire Chiefs. Emergency workers – especially in the mountains – have complained the system hasn’t worked since it was installed about a decade ago.
“We don’t want ‘Can you hear me now?’ to be the tagline to describe Colorado’s emergency radio system,” Morgan said.
Fire officials also want to ask legislators to fund airplanes or helicopters, plus money to add more Type 3 incident management teams to handle mid-sized wildfires.
Legislators were supposed to hear from a Forest Service official, but the federal government shutdown kept him away.
Roberts regretted his absence.
“It’s emblematic of how this is going to have to be. The state is going to have to be the leader, in close partnership with local governments,” Roberts said.