Several years ago, when I was still a state legislator, I carried a bill to provide tax breaks for volunteer firefighters to offset the costs of their safety equipment. These volunteers, who are on the front lines of wildfire response in most mountain areas, must often buy their own boots, helmet, jackets and other personal protective equipment. A tax credit would allow more volunteers to serve their communities, helping all citizens in the process.
Recognizing this personal sacrifice through state tax policy seemed like not only the right thing to do, but the least the state of Colorado could do for those people who could be the difference between a 10-acre burn and a 10,000-acre catastrophic wildfire.
Not everyone saw it that way. I remember one Aurora lawmaker in particular who asked me why he should care about wildfires, since he didn’t think they affected his community. “This is an issue for your neighborhood, not mine,” he told me. He made it very clear that he saw my effort as the imposition of one community’s priorities on the entire state.
Of course, his wasn’t a difficult argument to rebut. Costs of suppression — ranging from the tens to hundreds of millions in a typical season — borne by state and federal agencies are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to quantifying the broad impacts of fires. Indirect costs are significant and widespread.
One could point to the millions of dollars Denver Water spent as a result of the Hayman Fire in 2002, or the tens of millions in insurance losses in the Missionary Ridge Fire in southwest Colorado that same year. Those are just some of the costs — in fact, the Western Forestry Leadership Coalition estimates that just those two fires had combined aggregate costs of more than $350 million. This is to say nothing about the tragic loss of human life that often accompanies catastrophic fires — a fact that should be troubling to everyone.
My point is, what may seem obvious to us isn’t so clear to all Coloradans.
Especially in light of the Lower North Fork Fire, leaders at the state Capitol need to hear from mountain communities. Serious questions have been raised about controlled-burn policy, reverse-911 systems, and evacuation procedures. These questions must be answered, and lessons must be learned so that what happened never happens again.
There will soon be an opportunity to have our say. Gov. John Hickenlooper has recently launched TBD Colorado, a series of town meetings across the state set up specifically to solicit citizen input on a range of issues. According to its website, the meetings will result in a “final written report to be shared with the governor, the General Assembly and other state leaders that will offer both quantifiable and qualitative public-policy recommendations for improving Coloradans’ quality of life.”
Those who have something to add to the conversation about wildfire preparedness might consider visiting www.tbdcolorado.org and nominating themselves to participate in the west Jeffco meeting, to be held this summer.
Let yourself be heard. This is important.
Rob Witwer is a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives and co-author of the book “The Blueprint: How Democrats Won Colorado and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care.”