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Learning lessons from a wildfire

Summer’s turned out differently for me than I’d envisioned last winter.

I’ve been away from home more than any interim I can remember, mostly back and forth to Denver for committee meetings.

The good thing is, it’s been an education on a variety of topics affecting my district.

The water resources review committee looks at the top concerns facing Colorado on water issues. The health benefits exchange legislative committee oversees the independent board putting together Colorado’s insurance exchange.

The most time-consuming and pressing assignment for me, though, is the Lower North Fork Wildfire Commission. With the wildfire season subsiding, we’re meeting frequently as we learn about the current health of our forests and the imminent threat of more wildfires across Colorado.

The wildfire commission’s task is to look closely at the Conifer area wildfire that began as a prescribed burn, purposefully set by the state’s forest service under a contract with the private land owner, the Denver Water Board, to reduce the large amount of wood fuel in a particular section of land. Left untreated, the woods in this important watershed could’ve easily exploded into fire from a lighting strike and the thinking was to be proactive by reducing the fuels and fire hazard.

What took the prescribed burn from a rather common effort to reduce fire hazard to a catastrophic wildfire was a ferociously windy day after the burn had been completed, but before all of the fire’s embers were out. Before the escaped burn was extinguished, 23 homes were destroyed and three residents died.

A court will determine whether the state’s prescribed burn was done negligently and a special compensation board will decide how to distribute compensation to the victims. This’ll take place over a longer time period than the commission’s immediate work and the delay has proved very frustrating to those most harmed by the fire.

However, different than the two other processes, the commission’s members are to listen to the victims of the fire and review, with the help of those more experienced than us, what went wrong in this case, with our task being to propose better state policy approaches, preventing or, more realistically, reducing the number of similar tragedies in Colorado.

To this end, we traveled to the site of the prescribed burn and along the wildfire’s path as it destroyed homes several ridges away from the fire’s origin. We heard from fire officials and from homeowners who’d lost their homes. Later, we took several hours of testimony from community members as they bravely and emotionally told of their losses.

The tragic toll of the wildfire is palpable from the stories and understandably angry questions of the residents, the blackened path of the superheated fire, and the emotional struggles of those who worked some aspect of the fire with the best of intentions, but were unable to stop the damage that unfolded.

Each person experiences the pain of wildfire and its havoc differently, yet whether the year is 2012 or earlier, many Coloradans — too many — know their own version of a similar story. In an effort to make progress on the goal of better state policymaking, as chairwoman of the commission, I’ve invited various presenters to the commission to further inform and shape our recommendations to the full legislature when we reconvene next January.

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