DENVER — It’s an unfortunate reality of the time: wildfires in Colorado are getting worse and the season is lasting longer. This year is expected to follow that trend with a buildup of heavy fuels, adry season ahead, and not enough moisture.
Skip Shirlaw from the Inter-Canyon Fire Protection District worries 2022 could look a lot like 2012, where several serious wildfires like the Waldo Canyon fire and Lower North Fork fire burned through the state, destroying thousands of acres and numerous properties.
Beyond the challenges of the wildfires themselves, many agencies find themselves in need of more volunteers. More than half of the state’s 375 fire departments depend either partially or entirely on volunteers.
Colorado, like many other states across the country, is seeing a decline in the number of volunteers.
“We've seen nearly a 200% increase in call volume, we've seen nearly a 50% reduction in volunteerism 2019,” Shirlaw said.
Inter-Canyon Fire Protection covers 52 square miles and relies on four paid firefighters and 22 volunteers. The volunteers are plumbers, office managers, electricians, realtors and more.
Most of the calls coming in are not for fires but other medical emergencies and volunteering requires a lot of commitment; it requires dozens of hours of training, some personal costs for equipment, and a sacrifice of personal time since volunteers must be on call regularly to respond to various emergencies.
“People have very busy lives, to add another 10 to 12 hours a week, to volunteer for the fire department, that's asking quite a bit,” Shirlaw says.
Colorado lawmakers are trying to help ease some of the burdens of these volunteer agencies in the form of two bills.
Senate Bill 22-002 allows fire departments to be compensated by the state for wildland fires that exceeded the department's capacity to extinguish or control, and the period of mutual aid has ended.
The money would be used to compensate volunteer firefighters for their help in the suppression efforts.
It also provides more resources to focus on the behavioral health challenges volunteer firefighters face.
“People don't think about that much but we've had fires in the state where we've lost firefighters, and there are some real behavioral health issues there,” said Rep. Perry Will, R-New Castle, one of the bill’s bipartisan co-sponsors.
Perry sits on a wildfire committee at the capitol and says the legislature is keenly aware of the wildfire threats the state is facing and is doing what it can to help. He considers the state’s package of wildfire bills among the legislature’s top priorities.
“Obviously the needs far outweigh what we can provide, of course, but we're doing the best we can,” he said.
A second, recently pass bill works to provide more training and equipment for volunteer departments.
House Bill 22-1194 offers $5 million to the Local Firefighter Safety and Disease Prevention Fund to purchase protective equipment for local governments and volunteer fire departments, pay for training and reimburse local governments for training and equipment they have provided.
Garry Briese from Colorado State Fire Chiefs is wildly enthusiastic about both bills, saying there are components that will assist in the recruiting and retainment of volunteers that departments badly need.
The funding for training is also a big deal to get the volunteers up to speed on how to handle the fires but also protect themselves.
He’s also particularly excited about the equipment funding, saying that this will be the first time the state has made any significant investments into health safety equipment for all firefighters including volunteers.
Still, Briese underscores that money won’t solve everything and that there are still plenty of challenges ahead.
Shirlaw, meanwhile, agrees that the funding and support from the state and its package of wildfire bills are nice, but if there aren’t people to use the equipment or mitigate or fight fires, all the equipment in the world won’t matter.
He appreciates any help he can get from volunteers and he hopes the state will consider even more ways to encourage people to volunteer.
“Our most important resource is people. We need incentives for people to want to volunteer,” Shirlaw said. “There are certain states that have given tax incentives to volunteers. That's something that would be a potential benefit that some of them might look at look to.”
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