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April 18, 2008 — Even as winter weather rolled back into Colorado Thursday and squelched three wildfires that Tuesday scorched thousands of acres, killed three firefighters and destroyed scores of buildings, fire officials in the mountains warned against complacency – especially in light of the state's massive mountain pine beetle epidemic.
"We get lulled into a false sense of security," said Carol Mulson, fire marshal and deputy chief of the Eagle River Fire Protection District. "The ski season just ended and everyone sees a lot of snow on the ground, and people think we can't have a fire. But in my mind we're never really out of fire season. It's just diminished in frequency depending on some of the factors that crop up such as snowfall."
Large fires fed by 50 mph winds struck Ordway and Fort Carson on the state's Eastern Plains Tuesday, but particularly surprising was the Carbondale grass fire that burned about 1,000 acres of shrubs and cottonwood trees along the Roaring Fork River near Aspen.
It's unusual to see wildfires in mountainous areas in April, Mulson said, especially given the above-average snowpack in the high country, but she adds that a few days of warm temperatures coupled with high winds is all it takes.
"It doesn't happen very often, but then we have an incident like Carbondale that smacks us in the face and reminds us that actually it can happen at any time of the year," said Mulson, who adds that a good snowpack and wet spring will aid firefighters but those factors also increase the amount of vegetation and therefore fuel loads heading into the summer.
Mulson urges homeowners to start clearing vegetation away from homes as soon as possible given the potentially explosive condition of the national forests surrounding many Colorado mountain towns. The mountain pine beetle killed 500,000 acres of lodgepole pines last year, and 1.5 million acres overall since the mid- to late-1990s.
"We don't encourage clear cutting, which can lead to mudslide and drainage issues," Mulson said of fire mitigation efforts in and around mountain towns surrounded by dense and dying lodgepole forests. "There's a smart way to manage it that doesn't create other problems."
Mulson said her district is highly supportive of collaborative efforts to thin beetle-killed forests near mountains towns (known as the wildland urban interface) and promote re-vegetation with more fire-resistant species of trees such as spruce and aspen. She also said fire districts across the state need to work closely to share resources.
State Sen. Dan Gibbs (D-Silverthorne), a certified wildland firefighter, is once again pushing legislation aimed at providing more funds for thinning projects as well as offering financial incentives for businesses to manufacture and use bark beetle-killed wood products such as pellets for stoves, wood chips and furniture. A third bill he sponsored would allow water boards to bond for fire mitigation projects.
Last year Gibbs was able to procure $1 million for thinning projects in critical areas, and this year's Colorado Forest Restoration Act, currently working its way through committee, seeks the same amount – which can then be coupled with state and federal money. He’s also a primary sponsor of HB 1269 would grant a sales tax exemption on beetle-kill timber or wood products and therefore create more of market for the millions of dead trees.
"I'm very optimistic that we can turns a negative into a positive, but my greatest concern is that we're going to have a catastrophic wildfire," said Gibbs, who also serves on Gov. Bill Ritter's Forest Health Advisory Board. "The sooner we can do these thinning projects to protect where people live and protect where they get their water from, then it becomes a win-win for everyone."
In Washington, Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), a U.S. Senate candidate whose current 2nd Congressional District includes some of the hardest hit mountain counties, has sponsored three separate pieces of pending legislation aimed at battling the bark-beetle epidemic and the resulting fire risk.
The Fire Safe Communities Act would provide funds for creating defensible spaces around homes by reducing hazardous fuels through thinning projects. It also would create new federal grants to introduce fire safety to local communities and would increase reimbursement from FEMA to local communities hit by wildfires from 75 to 90 percent.
Udall in January introduced an amendment to an energy bill passed in December that would have forest fuels deemed eligible as a renewable energy source in the form of biomass. That bill is called the Wildfire Risk Reduction and Renewable Biomass Utilization Act.
And finally, Udall sponsored the Colorado Forest Insect Emergency Response Act, which would cut through some of the regulatory barriers and allow stepped-up thinning in some of the hardest hit areas. It would let the Forest Service forgo the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) in categorical exclusions in areas near towns where the threat of fire is deemed an emergency.
"I think a lot of people living up in the mountains and surrounded by these all of these insect-killed trees are feeling a little powerless," said Udall spokeswoman Tara Trujillo. "At this point, (this bill) would allow us to streamline some of those regulations so we can help save some lives up in those communities and protect homes."
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