DENVER – Lawmakers on Monday heard from experts and victims of prescribed burns in an effort to better understand how the fire-prevention method can benefit or hurt Colorado.
Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, who sits on the interim Wildfire Matters Review Committee, said she would explore expanding prescribed-burn efforts but said she needs assurances that it can be done safely.
“One of the big impediments to prescribed burns is the perceived threat to what if we lose control of a prescribed burn. We have learned some horrible painful steps from past experiences,” Roberts said.
Perhaps most significant was the devastating Lower North Fork Fire in 2012, in which a controlled burn set by the Colorado State Forest Service caused a wildfire in Jefferson County that killed three people and damaged or destroyed more than two dozen homes.
Referring to prescribed burns, Roberts said, “Do we have a safer environment to do those? Because they’re not happening. So, we have time bombs ticking, and I guess I’m going to be urging that we move on that, but I need to be assured that we are in a better place today.”
Colorado State Fire Chiefs President Mike Morgan said there are some new practices but added that there is still much work to be done.
“The programs that are in place with some of the prescribed-fire stuff – there are some better practices and better training opportunities out there,” he said.
“We are not where we need to be, but we have taken some outside-the-box approaches,” he said. “We have to rethink how we’re doing this, and I think most of the stakeholders ... are willing to do that.”
Tom Scanlan, a Conifer resident who lost property in the Lower North Fork Fire, said he and his wife’s life and health were disrupted for two years because of the state’s failure. He pointed out that the fire was caused by the same state officials advising the committee.
“Fire cannot be controlled,” Scanlan said. “I used to think prescribed burns were critical. Through my experience with the Lower North Fork Fire, I’ve come to know that those positions are patently false.”
Morgan pointed out that this year has been a relatively quiet fire season. But he said the state must still take steps to prepare for the inevitable.
“We can’t let our guard down with regard to wildfires in the state of Colorado,” Morgan said.
He said the Legislature took some good steps this year, including working to fix the state’s troubled emergency radio system and securing funding for an aerial firefighting fleet.
At the committee’s last meeting, fire chiefs suggested that they may stop responding to homeowners who do not take steps to limit the fire hazards around their homes. Garry Briese, executive director of the Colorado State Fire Chiefs, proposed placing something like a “red diamond” on homes to identify which have not undergone mitigation procedures.
But he said on Monday that creating such a program is unrealistic.
“We don’t think that can be done,” Briese said. “We like the idea; we just don’t have a way of doing it.”