Make up for ‘Lost Decade’ in advancing policy on wildfires

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

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, dry, smoky and scary. Those of us in Colorado’s southwest corner are 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 have passed since the Missionary Ridge Fire 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 in terms of policy 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 have lost their lives or homes?

Putting out the fire is only the beginning of a long road of recovery for the land and those who inhabit it. Effects 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 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 Bear left us a dangerous legacy. We can’t completely prevent wildfires after all. Mother Nature will 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.

Earlier this month, I was elected chairwoman of the bipartisan legislative wildfire commission. The bill creating the commission passed after the Lower North Fork fire in Conifer, outside 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 looking 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.

Ellen Roberts represents Senate District 6 in Colorado’s General Assembly. The district encompasses Montezuma, Dolores, La Plata, Archuleta, Montrose, San Miguel, San Juan and Ouray counties. Contact Roberts by phone at (303) 866-4884, or by email