FRISCO—Responding to wildfires and addressing forest health requires multi-level collaborative efforts, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said Wednesday at an hour-long dialogue with Summit County officials and residents.
"We worked hard to connect all the levels of responses this summer," Hickenlooper said, touting the state's reorganization of agencies as a big first step in streamlining response efforts to major wildfires.
Hickenlooper also said his administration is working on making sure that local responders have real-time access to critical weather information, including the location of lightning strikes, which could help fire crews get to right spot in time to make a difference during those critical first few hours of a wildfire.
The state will also pay a larger share of the initial attack on wildfires, he said. That will encourage local responders, who are usually first on the scene, to make an all-out effort to suppress fires before they get too large.
The governor was also in Summit County to hear about local success stories, which could serve as a model for other parts of the state, according to County Commissioner Dan Gibbs, who helped organize the session.
Gibbs said Summit County is unique in that it is the only jurisdiction in the state where residents voted to tax themselves to fund wildfire mitigation efforts, with a small sales tax that has generated as much as $500,000 annually to thin trees and clear brush in fire-prone neighborhoods.
"Nearly everybody in Summit County lives in the wildland-urban interface," said County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier. "This is a great chance to share with the governor what we've done locally."
Hickenlooper referred to this summer's exceptional weather, which combined record dryness in March and April with all-time record high temperatures.
"This summer, unlike 2002, we had a heatwave that was unprecedented. If you combine the heat with the dryness ... we had conditions we haven't seen since the Great Depressions. It was equivalent to having another entire month of summer," he said.
The governor also addressed climate change as a possible factor in planning for wildfires in the future, but still characterized global warming concerns as being part of a debate — even as more and more studies show a strong link between warmer temperatures, longer fire seasons and more intense and larger fires.
Even the chief of the U.S. Forest Service has acknowledged that climate change is a factor in the wildfire equation, yet Hickenlooper seemed unwilling to fully accept those conclusions.
"If drought is going to be an increasing part of our future, and again, this is a huge debate ... that's something that has to be involved in these discussions of why we should be taking and accepting more risks and preparing, possibly, for worse situations," he said.
The state may be able to help reduce the damage from inevitable future fires by finding incentives for property owners to do more to clear trees and brush from around homes, he said, recommending extension of a tax credit for fire mitigation expenses, perhaps combined with insurance rate incentives.
In response to a question from local emergency officials about using prescribed burns as a tool to reduce wildfire risks, Hickenlooper wasn't too encouraging. He said that, based on his conversations with residents around the state, "the needle has swung the other way," with little public support for controlled fires.