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As the wind keeps blowing, and we watch the devastation in New Mexico, we can’t help but wonder “Are we next?” The threat of wildfire looms larger every year due to drought, warmer temperatures and stronger winds.
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That’s the painful reality. However, at the same time the attention being paid and work being done to address wildfire risk and recovery — by everyone from your neighbors to President Biden — has increased markedly in the past couple of years.
Last year we saw lots of groundwork being laid. Here are just a few of the efforts to clarify the issues and recommend priorities for action:
• Commissioner Lesley Dahlkemper led the Jeffco Wildfire Risk Reduction Task Force, which issued its report in January. It has evolved into the Jefferson County Wildfire Commission and will focus on mitigation, community education and revenue sources.
• Congressman Joe Neguse started the Bipartisan Wildfire Caucus early last year; it now has nine bills in the pipeline. He also worked on securing appropriations of $4.7 billion for wildland fire management.
• Rep. Lisa Cutter chaired the legislature’s Interim Committee on Wildfire Matters, which recommended several successful bills, some of which were co-sponsored by Sen. Tammy Story.
This year we saw the money, the lack of which has been a huge impediment to action in the past. Working together, elected officials at every level of government secured funding for:
• grants to local governments for fuel reduction and mitigation;
• increased fire-fighting capacity;
• resources for volunteer firefighters;
• higher pay for federal firefighters;
• programs to recycle the biomass;
• outreach, education and communication.
I tried to calculate the amount appropriated in all the state and federal bills, and threw in the towel. It’s many, many millions, to be sure, and likely enough to meet the needs of those entrusted with spending it.
No article about government budgets in Colorado would be complete without mention of the pernicious effects of the TABOR amendment. Most of the money committed to wildfire prevention and preparedness comes from the federal government. When it goes directly to Jeffco, it is exempt from the TABOR limit. When it passes through the state, it is subject to the limit.
This means that for every dollar Jeffco gets through state programs, a dollar has to be cut from some other county program or agency. Why are we robbing Peter to pay Paul? Colorado is one of a handful of counties that has not “de-Bruced,” a process by which voters agree to waive the limit on revenue increases, while keeping the right to vote on tax increases.
We can agree that money is good, but citizen involvement is every bit as important.
Hats off to Cindy Latham and other leaders of Community Wildfire Protection Implementation Plans who worked with Evergreen Fire/Rescue to secure a grant valued at $300,000 from a state program this March. It will be used to thin and limb trees on 14.5 miles of roadways that have been designated as evacuation routes. Many of the people who died in the 2018 Paradise fire in California were trapped in their cars on a road blocked by burning trees. Thanks to dedicated volunteers, fire district staff and state funding, we and our neighbors may avoid such a horrible fate.
Another indicator that community awareness efforts have been successful is the recent shake-up on the Evergreen Fire Protection District board. As the Courier reported after the May 3 election, the three newly elected members were those who prioritized fire mitigation and promised to address the needs of the shrinking volunteer force.
We’re off to a good start in addressing wildfire issues, but there’s a lot more to do. Do what you can to decrease risk for yourself and your neighbors. Check out rotarywildfireready.com and make a plan.
Linda Rockwell moved to Evergreen with her family in 1982. She got involved in local land-use issues in 1984 and in the Democratic Party a few years later. She served as chair of the Jeffco Democrats from 1993 to 1997. Good government and principled politics remain her passion.
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