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We can’t afford another Lost Decade

I spent much of last week in Mancos, where the Weber Fire had been raging, to do whatever I could to help.

At a minimum, by being there, I could see firsthand what my constituents were facing and watch the amazing work by the many involved agencies, across jurisdictions, to control the fire that threatened the very existence of the town of Mancos and its residents.

The Weber Fire is only one of three major and simultaneous wildfires in my Senate district, with a number of smaller fires also occurring.

Unfortunately, this is “déjà vu all over again.” The summer of 2012 is looking a lot like that of 2002 — hot, very dry, smoky and scary. Those of us in Colorado’s southwest corner are now joined by many on the Front Range who are now much more personally aware of what it means to live in the path of their own catastrophic wildfires.

I’m very frustrated at the Lost Decade, my way of describing the 10 years that’s passed since the Missionary Ridge Fire that shook up everything in the Durango, Bayfield and Vallecito areas and had repercussions all across our region. The Missionary Ridge Fire occurred the same year as the Hayman Fire, much closer to the Denver metro area, but still not enough changed policy-wise, once those ashes cooled and the smoke cleared.

We need to be asking, why is that? How many times will we repeat this terrible experience before we do what it takes to get different results than blackened earth, terribly high costs and people who’ve lost their lives or homes?

Putting the fire out is only the beginning of a long road to recovery for the land and those who inhabit it. Impacts on water supply and quality, wildlife habitat, poor soils composition, erosion control, and paying for the costs of the fire take longer to see than the first flames and smoke, but they aren’t far behind.

My college degree was in environmental policy, followed by a law degree focused on natural resources. As a former park ranger, I can say that time passes, but the essential principles of forest health and fire ecology stay the same. Forest fire suppression only delays the inevitable and that delay comes at a tremendously high cost.

Well-intentioned, but wrong, Smokey the Bear left us a dangerous legacy. We can’t completely prevent wildfires after all. Mother Nature’ll have her way, sooner or later, and that time is now.

Simply put, we can’t afford another Lost Decade. Colorado’s forests are sick, dying and, without serious change, will no longer be a place of rest and respite, but will threaten the lives of those who live in them and those who fight the fires that rage from them.

Last Friday, I was elected chair of the bipartisan legislative wildfire commission. The bill creating the commission passed after the Lower North Fork Fire in Conifer, outside of Denver, the first tragic wildfire of the season. Our charge is to make recommendations to the state Legislature in 2013 to prevent similar tragedies and look beyond that particular fire to identify the legislative and regulatory obstacles preventing positive change in Colorado’s forest and wildfire management. This is serious work, admittedly easier said than done, and I encourage your input.

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