DENVER – The Black Forest fire toll escalated Monday to 502 homes destroyed, two deaths and more than $5.5 million in federal costs alone. The worst fire in Colorado’s history sparked criticisms of Gov. John Hickenlooper and the Democrat-controlled legislature for kicking a state-owned fleet of firefighting planes off the list of funding priorities.
Senate Bill 245, a bipartisan proposal sponsored by Sens. Steve King (R-Grand Junction) and Cheri Jahn (D-Wheat Ridge) with Rep. Bob Gardner (R-Colorado Springs), was dubbed the “paper airplane” measure after Democrats deemed the firefighting fleet was not a high funding priority. The governor remained silent, refusing to take a decisive leadership role in the plan.
But, the issue may be put back on the table Thursday when the Joint Budget Committee meets, said Sen. Kent Lambert (R-Colorado Springs), whose district includes the ravaged Black Forest community where more than more than 400,000 people were evacuated after the fire erupted June 11.
“After the cool, wet March and April we had, yesterday was just a bad day,” said Hickenlooper on KOA’s Mike Rosen show. “We have seven fires burning right now – obviously the worst one is in Black Forest in El Paso County.”
“Somewhere between and 60 and 100 homes have burned – that’s all in one day,” said the governor. “It started as a grass fire but with that high wind, with it this dry, unless you can get there in that first hour or two hours, it’s very hard to battle this fire.”
His words underscored the purpose of the measure to establish the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps in the division of Fire Prevention and Control of the Department of Public Safety. The fleet would include air tankers that could be dispatched within 20 minutes of notification.
The fleet plan, which would have cost an estimated $17.5 million, has now been postponed for two years – if it flies in the legislature at all.
The state spent more than $40 million last year fighting fires over 300 days that included the Lower North Fork Fire near Evergreen, Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs, the High Park Fire west of Fort Collins, the Weber Fire near Durango and The Little Sand Fire near Pagosa Springs. The fires destroyed more than 550 homes, dozens of structures and killed three people in 2012.
This year, the state legislature passed measures that included compensation for some of the victims of the Lower North Fork Fire that was started by state-authorized fire burn, insurance reforms, tax incentives for fire mitigation efforts by property owners and thinning forests of trees damaged by pine beetles.
“We have about $11 million to trying to do forest improvement – a lot of preparation stuff,” said Hickenlooper.
“That’s not the way to go,” said King.
The effort to eradicate dead forest trees is an arduous process that takes years, King said. At least 70 percent of Colorado’s forest land is owned by the federal government which has not taken proactive measures to manage them.
The dead trees, King said, pose the greatest fire risk to communities nestled in the hillsides of urban centers and the mountains.
“This is a clear and present danger in our state,” said King. “The longer we wait and the lack of direction puts health, property and our economy at risk.”
But, as a member of the minority party, King had little influence on the “priorities and choices” for funding programs during the legislative session.
“The bottom line is the Democrat majority had plans for that money,” said King, who plans to resurrect funding an air fleet next year.
Funding for SB 245 was rejected by both the Senate and House appropriation committees.
Forest tree “mitigation is an important priority and what we’re doing with forest health… the governor (said) this year is important work,” said Sen. Pat Steadman (D-Denver), who passed the amendment to gut funding the air fleet.
“If that prevents some fires or prevents them from growing to the size that we saw last summer, that’s a good thing,” declared Steadman. “That $10 million is the correct priority.”
King said he’d talked to the governor’s staff about the bill to establish a state firefighting air corps since last year, but Hickenlooper was never available to talk about it.
“It’s irresponsible,” countered Sen. Ted Harvey (R-Highlands Ranch). “If the governor is going to abdicate his role in protecting the citizens of Colorado, then the legislature should do it.”
The prolonged drought, Harvey predicted could cause a “devastating fire year.”
The “paper airplane” measure – without funding – was quietly signed into law by Hickenlooper.
“(This) is just window dressing and patting ourselves on the back, saying ‘Woo-hoo! we care,’ but not enough to actually do something,” said Sen. Scott Renfroe (R-Greeley). “It’s appalling.”
Sen. Greg Brophy (R-Wray) suggested funding the air corps with a portion of the $18 million slated for land conservation fund rebates.
“What good is open space if it burns?” asked Brophy.
Additional funding priorities approved by the Democrat-dominated legislature with the governor’s nod include:
- $6.6 million for the governor’s Energy Office – including the new Climate Control Czar – despite being unable to justify its expenditure of $252 million over a 5-year period;
- $4.6 million to expand Medicaid eligibility;
- $3.3 million to protect wildlife habitat;
- $2.8 million for the governor’s $10 million Fort Lyon homeless drug and alcohol treatment center;
- $1.8 million to implement background checks for gun exchanges;
- $1.8 million to grant illegal immigrants in-state college tuition and state-issued driver’s licenses;
- $1.3 million for the Voter Reform Act, which some predict will lead to a spike in election fraud