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Can't stop fires, but can make them a higher priority

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By Rob Witwer

If you’ve been to Summit or Grand counties lately, you’ve seen the effects of the largest and most catastrophic pine beetle infestation in decades.

As the Rocky Mountain News recently reported, “Every large, mature lodgepole pine forest in Colorado and southern Wyoming will be dead within three to five years,” based on projections from the U.S. Forest Service. The Rocky further reported that the outbreak, which began in 1996, has infested 1.5 million acres of trees, culminating in an unbelievable 500,000 additional acres in 2007 alone.

This should be a wake-up call to state and federal policy makers. As the infestation spreads and more trees die, it will affect tourism and water quality, not to mention the increased risk of catastrophic wildfire caused by the proliferation of dry, dead trees.

As I’ve written in this space before, Sen. Mike Kopp, R-Littleton, and I have been concerned about the state’s wildfire preparedness even without the added problems caused by pine beetles; when the beetles are added to the equation, however, it’s a matter of the utmost importance.

Legislators, while generally aware of the issues, approach the problem with varying degrees of urgency. For example, a bill sponsored by Kopp and myself to provide a state income tax deduction for homeowners who reduce hazardous fuels in wildfire-prone areas has so far enjoyed bipartisan support, and awaits one of its final hearings in the Senate Committee Appropriations.

If passed, we hope this law would provide a financial incentive to private landowners who wish to fireproof not only their own property, but the overall forest system in which they live.

But another proposal to give a modest $250 tax credit to volunteer firefighters to help offset the costs of their service was killed by the House committee on finance on a near party-line vote (Douglas Bruce of Colorado Springs was the lone Republican “no” vote, and Jerry Frangas of Denver was the lone Democratic “yes” vote).

The demise of this latter bill was surprising, especially in light of ample testimony about the challenges faced by volunteer fire departments in recruiting and retaining volunteers. A well-trained volunteer fire department could well mean the difference between a ten-acre blaze and a 100,000-acre wildfire.

Although it’s a much larger subject that I can cover in this column, let me just say that I’m concerned that if the state doesn’t do more to support volunteer fire departments, which comprise 62 percent of the state’s fire departments, the effectiveness of this vital resource may gradually diminish, leaving the state to fill in the gaps.

There are other measures moving through the legislative process, and some will pass — but are they enough? Are we being too alarmist, or are we more akin to the people who pointed to the dikes around New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina and expressed concern that they might not hold?

I hope it’s not the latter, but we know for a fact that trees that are not cut or burned accumulate as fuel — and dead trees are the most volatile fuel of all. It is a matter of when, not if, a wildfire season like the one we experienced in 2002 will revisit Colorado. The state legislature cannot prevent the natural fire cycle from occurring, but it’s time that we move wildfires higher up the list of state priorities.

Rob Witwer is the state representative for House District 25, which encompasses the Evergreen area and most of western Jefferson County.