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Colorado bill package aims to help with wildfire mitigation efforts after a devastating two years

Marshall Fire
Posted at 6:21 PM, Feb 17, 2022

LOUISVILLE, Colo. — If you would have asked Lauren Brave a year and a half ago whether she felt lucky, the answer would have been a resounding yes.

The family’s house in Grand Lake came within a half mile of the East Troublesome Fire. Nearly 200,000 acres of land were scorched and hundreds of homes and structures burned down. Yet, somehow her house survived.

Because of its location in the mountains, the family had taken efforts to mitigate the fuels around the house — cutting down trees and shrubs to protect it against a potential fire.

MORE: Poll shows Coloradans' increasing concerns over climate change, wildfire, water

“It's something that you think about when you live in the mountains, but not in a suburban neighborhood,” Brave said.

In December, the family’s luck took an unfortunate turn when the Marshall Fire burned down their home in Louisville. The family hadn’t taken the same mitigation steps around the Louisville home; they didn’t think they needed to because it was in a suburban area.

“Wildfire burning down our house down was not on our list of things that we were prepared for. That was a real shock,” Brave said.

The family had upgraded their fence a few years ago and briefly considered a fireproof fence, but quickly decided against it because of the cost.

Now, like so many of their neighbors, they are in the process of cleaning up debris and rebuilding their lives. Brave is also a pediatrician and has seen the effect the wildfires have had on her patients’ mental and physical health.

When they rebuild, fire prevention will be a big focus for the family. However, mitigation and prevention are not cheap.

“The range really varies, but it’s in the average of about $5,000 for 80 hours of work,” said Jim Webster, the program coordinator for Boulder County’s Wildfire Partners program.

The program has operated since 2014 but worked long before that to help homeowners protect and prepare their homes for the worst.

Right now, the program serves roughly 3,000 houses in the community. But there is more interest every year.

The program works in two parts: hardening the home to make it more resilient to wildfires and creating a defensible space around it.

However, the cost burden falls on the homeowner. It also requires routine upkeep. The county does offer some financial assistance with grants from the state and federal government, but there’s always more need.

“When we look at the cost of losing a home, or losing multiple homes to a community, that cost is enormous. So, a little bit of money upfront will save us a lot of money in the future,” Webster said.

That’s where Colorado lawmakers come in. Even before the Marshall Fire, legislators held a series of interim committee meetings to take a serious look at the state’s preparedness.

The bipartisan committee came up with five bills to help. Three of those bills were heard in the House Energy and Environment Committee Thursday and passed.

The first bill, HB22-1011, creates an incentive grant program for local governments that will match money raised by localities for mitigation efforts. Eligible local governments must have a dedicated source of funding for forest management and wildfire prevention.

“The reason why I think that's so important is that we're incentivizing and then rewarding communities to have some kind of stake in it for themselves,” said bill cosponsor Rep. Lisa Cutter, D-Littleton. “It gives local communities that flexibility to decide how to use those funds so they can figure out what the best thing is for their community.”

Cutter says while the state has been working on wildfire preparedness for years, the Marshall Fire really drove home the message for a lot of families that this isn’t something that only affect mountain areas.

The bill calls for $6.9 million to be dedicated to the fund in the first year and another $20 million in the second year. The money would come from the state’s general fund. It passed the committee in a 9-3 vote.

A second bill, HB22-1007, creates a grant program for local wildfire mitigation and changes the tax code to offer a break for landowners who work to protect their properties.

The grant portion of the bill can be used to conduct outreach to landowners to help explain the resources that are available to them and the best practices for mitigation.

“The grant program really is more of an education piece of the bill that allows those homeowners to get educated on what they can do with mitigation around their properties to create fire breaks,” said Rep. Mike Lynch, R-Wellington.

Before the Marshall Fire, Lynch’s district was affected by the state’s largest recorded wildfire, the Cameron Peak Fire, in 2020.

The fire burned over a two-month period, burning nearly 209,000 acres and destroying 469 structures.

For Lynch, these bills are personal because of all his district went through two years ago and all his community has done since to recover.

“I don't see fires becoming less of an issue in this state,” he said. “What this bill does — for the folks that this is a financial burden to them to make those proper mitigation efforts, this allows them to be able to afford things that are kind of expensive when it comes time to mitigate those properties.”

The bill calls for $125,000 from the General Fund for the first year and another $250,000 the following year.

Land and homeowners would be able to start applying for the mitigation tax credit in 2023 to cover up to $625 in expenses per year, but it only applies to families who make less than $120,000 a year and only covers 25% of their mitigation expenses.

The bill passed the House Energy and Environment Committee Thursday in a unanimous vote.

A third bill, HB22-1012, created a grant program to help counties prevent and recover from wildfires in a manner that reduces the amount of carbon entering the atmosphere.

The grant money can be used for wood-removal equipment and labor, reforestation efforts, tree seedling and planting, and more. It would cost the state $48,000 in the first year and another $55,000 the following year.

Cutter says this package of bills will not solve all of the state’s wildfire issues, but it is an important start. It cleared the committee Thursday in an 11-1 vote. All three now move on in the legislative process.

Another bill to provide $5 million to the Department of Public Safety for local governments to use on firefighter safety equipment and training also passed its final reading in the legislature on Thursday. It now moves to the governor’s desk for his approval.

With or without the bills, Webster and his team will keep working on mitigation efforts to create more fire adapted communities.

“We're just starting. I mean, we've been working on this issue for many years. But there's so much more work to do,” he said. “We need to learn to live with wildfires.”