These bills aim to address growing wildfire risks in Colorado
Legislation would help uninsured homeowners, boost building codes for resiliency
Aboard a Colorado National Guard helicopter, Gov. Jared Polis on Friday, Dec. 31, 2021, gets a flyover tour of Boulder County neighborhoods destroyed by wildfires the previous day. (Hart Van Denburg/CPR, pool)
As the Colorado Legislature this session grapples with headlining issues such as land use, firearm violence reduction and reproductive health care access, a batch of bills is also trying to pump resources into wildfire mitigation and resilience.
Experts agree that the wildfire season is longer and more intense in Colorado and the rest of the West due to the effects of climate change. The three largest wildfires in state history all occurred in 2020, and the most destructive fire — the 2021 Marshall Fire — leveled entire subdivisions in an urban area once thought relatively safe from wildfires.
It’s an issue drawing attention from statewide, regional and national leaders.
“We must continue strengthening our aerial capabilities, supporting our professional and volunteer firefighters, and preparing for a hotter, drier climate,” Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, said in his State of the State address to the General Assembly in January. “Getting this right is critical for the health of our communities and the future of our state.”
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While there are many more than just five bills this session concerned with wildfire prevention, mitigation and containment, the five detailed below are noteworthy in their scope. Additionally, there is legislation related to buying another firefighting helicopter, exempting some taxes for people rebuilding their home after a wildfire, and adding fire damage as a condition that makes a housing unit uninhabitable, among others.
There are just two more weeks of the legislative session.
HB-1288: Fair Access To Insurance Requirements Plan
Colorado home and business owners who cannot secure adequate property insurance because of wildfire risk could obtain an insurance plan of “last resort” under a bill from Democrats House Speaker Julie McCluskie of Dillon and Rep. Judy Amabile of Boulder.
“The overarching goal is that we don’t have another Marshall Fire experience where people wake up after the fire and realize that they’re dramatically underinsured,” Amabile told reporters last week.
Roughly two-thirds of the homes lost in the Marshall Fire may have been underinsured, according to data collected by Colorado’s Division of Insurance.
The bill would set up a board to run that quasi-state insurance plan for property owners who can prove they are unable to get insurance from a private company. As the threat of wildfires grows in Colorado, the bill sponsors said it has become more challenging for certain property owners to get coverage as private insurers become skittish.
“Even if that hasn’t happened yet, we can see that that is what is on the horizon. This bill helps us get out in front of a looming problem so that we will be ready when we need it,” Amabile said on the House floor last week.
The program would be a safety net, not intended for widespread use instead of private insurance.
The bill passed through the House 48-15 on third reading on April 21. Its Senate sponsor is Sen. Dylan Roberts, an Avon Democrat.
SB-166: Establishment Of A Wildfire Resiliency Code Board
Perhaps one of the most sweeping bills related to wildfires this session aims to create a new board to adopt a statewide building code for wildfire resiliency. The 21-member board would be tasked with defining high-risk areas in the wildland-urban interface — that transition area between wilderness and developed land — and creating a minimum building and landscaping code for local governments to adopt.
“There’s a lot of data that this is one of the very best ways we can prevent fires from devastating our state. A minimum code is hugely impactful,” bill sponsor Sen. Lisa Cutter, a Littleton Democrat, said on the Senate floor earlier this month. A similar effort was abandoned last year towards the end of session.
Bill sponsors point to data that shows $1 spent on hardening homes can prevent between $4 and $8 in damage.
The bill is also sponsored by Democrats Sen. Tony Exum of Colorado Springs, Rep. Meg Froelich of Englewood and Rep. Elizabeth Velasco of Glenwood Springs.
“This is about community resiliency. This is about community safety and making sure we are ready for the next event,” Velasco told reporters last week.
The bill, which has cleared the Senate, passed through the House Appropriations Committee on April 21.
SB-5: Forestry And Wildfire Mitigation Workforce
A bipartisan bill aims to bolster the state’s workforce as related to wildfire mitigation, specifically when it comes to timber and forest management. It would authorize the expansion and creation of forestry programs at higher education institutions, with some receiving financial support to train students quickly.
“In Colorado, we’re estimated to be 20 to 50 percent understaffed in peak wildfire season, so we must do everything we can to increase educational resources and the recruitment of our frontline firefighters,” bill sponsor Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis, a Longmont Democrat, said on the Senate floor earlier this month.
The bill would also include high school outreach and set up internships with the timber industry in partnership with the Colorado State Forest Service.
The bill is also sponsored by Cutter, House Minority Leader Mike Lynch, a Wellington Republican, and Marc Snyder, a Manitou Springs Democrat.
It has already passed the Senate and passed on third reading in the House on Monday.
HB-1273: Creation Of Wildfire Resilient Homes Grant Program
Snyder was Manitou Springs mayor when the Waldo Canyon fire devastated the community in 2012, forcing tens of thousands of people to evacuate and destroying 346 homes. This year, Snyder is running two wildfire-related bills in the Legislature.
HB-1273 would create a grant program to help homeowners make their houses more resilient against wildfires. The grants could pay for best practices and materials for new builds, as well as retrofitting and structural improvements to existing houses.
“A lot of this is common sense — you mitigate 100 feet from your home any vegetation that’s flammable. But there’s a lot of other small changes that you can make,” Snyder told reporters earlier this month. Other improvements could include replacing roofing and siding material or closing open soffit vents to prevent embers from getting inside a house.
It would be housed within the Division of Fire Prevention and Control in the Department of Public Safety.
The grant program would have $2 million to start, but Snyder thinks that getting it up and running will make it easier to effectively use incoming federal dollars.
The bill made it through the House Agriculture, Water and Natural Resources committee on April 13. Democratic Rep. Junie Joseph of Boulder is also sponsoring the bill.
HB-1075: Wildfire Evacuation And Clearance Time Modeling
Another Snyder bill would direct the state’s emergency management office to study the feasibility of an evacuation and clearance time modeling system that would help residents understand various evacuation routes and the time it might take to evacuate during a wildfire.
Snyder said that a public-facing interface with that information could be a helpful pre-evacuation tool for residents in high-risk areas.
“When they ask everyone to leave at once, it can be a real nightmare. We saw what happened in Paradise, California, when a lot of people perished in their vehicles trying to flee,” he said, referring to a 2019 fire that killed 85 people.
The bill is also sponsored by Joseph and Democratic Sen. Tony Exum of Colorado Springs.
It made it through the House on April 11 on a 51-10 vote. It passed through its Senate committee on April 20 and was referred to the Senate Appropriations Committee.
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