Roberts: Fighting fires with legislative action
As we approach the middle of August, we are entering the heart of wildfire season. While we can hope that our increased rain this summer leads to a more mild season, that can change quickly as we move into fall.
Further, as we have seen already this summer, wildfires pose an existential threat to every corner of the state, diminishing air quality across the country. When they happen in our backyard, they threaten our communities.
That is why we acted with unhesitating urgency this year at the state Legislature and passed a large package of bills to make Colorado as prepared as possible for the months and years ahead. These new laws will address the pace and frequency of large wildfires, reduce pollution, protect our natural resources, and aid local economies. Here is what we did:
We passed six bills — all of them with bipartisan sponsorship — that allocated over $100 million to prevent and mitigate the destructive impact of wildfires and help our natural environment recover from previous fires. In the past two decades, Colorado has experienced a dramatic upsurge in the incidence and duration of forest fires, and three of the worst fires in state history occurred in 2020. The $100 million will address the intensifying problem and prepare Colorado for increased wildfire response.
Together, SB21-258 and SB21-054 direct about $45 million to forest restoration and wildfire risk mitigation projects, including forest management. The projects will be overseen by state agencies that will have the authority to operate on federal land. Forest fires don’t follow state lines, they burn across borders, so an expanded ability to fight fires in our national parks and on other federal territory will be a critical tool in Colorado’s wildfire mitigation efforts.
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SB21-240 strengthens Colorado’s efforts to protect our watershed from forest fires by allocating $20 million to the water conservation board. Our environment, economy, and society all depend on a healthy watershed. The effects of wildfires on runoff are potentially devastating and also unclear — ash may have a significant effect on local water supplies — so this bill will assess the damage while also addressing the contamination.
With the expanding size and risk of wildfires, it is essential that we take advantage of new, innovative technology to respond to the crisis. SB21-113 directs about $30 million to the firefighting air corps including the purchase of a Firehawk Helicopter that can detect and respond to fires across the state and put them out before they grow. Helicopters have become an essential tool in the state’s response to wildfires, and this bill will strengthen our efforts by investing in new, powerful equipment.
Lumber shortages related to fire and beetle kill will continue to be a problem and prices will continue to rise. HB21-1261 will exempt wood products from sales and use tax if the tree was killed by pine and spruce beetles. This tax exemption already exists in statute but was set to expire in 2020, so the bill extends the exemption through June 2026. This bill will incentivize selling lumber from trees that were already infected instead of chopping trees that were otherwise healthy, encouraging sustainability.
Finally, firefighters from Colorado and those who come here to fight wildland fires deserve to be publicly thanked and recognized every day as the heroes they are. Their work is immeasurably grueling and is often taken for granted. Let me take this opportunity to say thank you. Further, I am proud that our financial investment in the Division of Fire Prevention and Control this year will go toward supporting these amazing men and women who protect our communities day in and day out.
Bipartisan policy to mitigate and respond to wildfires has become a staple at the state Legislature, as it should be. However, we know that there is more work to do, especially as we grapple with fire and climate change impacting our daily lives like the closure of Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon and hazardous air quality due to fires and pollution to our west.
I am engaging as strongly as I can as your representative to get our communities the resources they need to mitigate the impacts of closures and detours and also to take action mitigating the impacts of climate change and fire in the future. There is a lot more to do, and I encourage you to share your ideas with me as we get ready for the legislative session next year. You can email me at Dylan.Roberts.House@state.co.us or call me on my cell phone at 970- 846-3054.
Rep. Dylan Roberts serves Eagle County and Routt County in the Colorado House of Representatives.