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Kopp, Witwer push creation of committee to study wildfire mitigation

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By AJ Vicens

Two Jeffco legislators are one step closer to creating a committee to study ways to deal with wildfires, especially in areas where homes and forests collide.

These areas — referred to in firefighting circles as the “wildland-urban interface” — contain increasing numbers of homes and subdivisions, making it difficult for firefighters to effectively fight wildfires and protect homes and lives, according to Senate Joint Resolution 25. The resolution would create an interim committee that would meet this summer and make recommendations by Nov. 1.

The resolution, sponsored by Sen. Mike Kopp, R-Littleton, and Rep. Rob Witwer, R-Genesee, was approved by the Senate Committee on Local Government on April 22 on a 6-1 vote, and will move to the Senate floor. It will then head to the House, and if approved there the committee will be created.

“Awareness of wildfire issues is much higher now than when we began this legislative session,” Witwer said. “With that increased awareness, I’m hopeful we’ll get plenty of support.”

Witwer said the idea came out of a town hall meeting he and Kopp held last summer in Elk Creek. “A number of suggestions from the public were used to craft the legislative agenda,” Witwer said.

One of the key parts of the resolution tasks the committee with finding a market-based solution for dealing with trees that have been devastated by the bark beetle epidemic. Bark beetles hit forests in several states hard in 2007, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Although Jefferson County has not seen as much damage as other northern Colorado forests, there are pockets with dead trees.

“If you can create a market incentive to removed dead trees, then it will reduce hazardous fuels more quickly,” Witwer said. “If there’s no market for those trees, somebody has to come down and cut them down, which is incredibly expensive. If there’s a market for them, if you harness the power of the market to get rid of this hazardous fuel, the state’s on much better footing when wildfire season begins.”

Richard Homann, fire division supervisor at the Colorado State Forest Service, likes the idea of the committee.

“It’s always good for legislators and their constituents to look at issues that have potential short-term and long-term impacts on them,” Homann said. “It’s an important issue that the state forest service deals with daily.”

Homan said the committee will bring the most current information, science and needs in front of the panel and help craft legislation to be introduced in the next legislative session. “From that standpoint, there’s value,” Homann said.

Garry DeJong, fire chief for Evergreen Fire/Rescue, likes the idea as well.

“I think overall this resolution is a good thing,” DeJong said. “To have the General Assembly and state leaders recognize the significance of the problem of not just the bark beetle issue, but urban interface and rural sprawl, is very important. There are a lot of challenges in urban interface environments.”

“It isn’t going to focus as much on studying the issue as focusing on what we know and package that,” Kopp said. “There needs to be more legislative members helping carry the water — no pun intended — on this policy area. We need all hands on deck.”

Kopp said the removal of beetle-killed trees is one of the key objectives of the committee.

“To the extent the government is in the way, we want to know about it and eliminate the barrier,” Kopp said.

Contact AJ Vicens at aj@evergreenco.com, and check www.columbinecourier.com for updates and breaking news.