Firefighting

Seeing elected officials try to come up with novel and inventive way to address problems is always welcome. It is an approach that should be encouraged. But just because an idea reflects thinking “outside the box” is no guarantee it is workable or sound.

So, it is with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s notion of training farmers and ranchers to fight fires on federal lands until government personnel can get to the scene.

There is nothing wrong with training more people in how to address wildfire – although many farmers and ranchers probably already know a thing or two about the subject – and he is probably correct about the importance of the first hour of a fire.

But, the governor’s comments came in the context of his questioning whether the state can afford its own fleet of firefighting aircraft; and in the light of that question, they make no sense. Weighing the cost of air tankers is of course legitimate; suggesting that training farmers and ranchers as firefighters is a viable alternative is not.

For one thing, farmers and ranchers are thinly spread. And in the tinder-dry conditions Colorado sometimes experiences, one or two people with spades are simply not comparable to a slurry bomber. Besides, farmers and ranchers typically have enough to do already, particularly when drought and weather have set up prime conditions for wildfire.

Consider another example: It would not be a bad idea if everyone old enough to drive were given first-aid courses. But, it does not follow that we could then dispense with ambulances, paramedics and emergency rooms.

The idea that local landowners would be the first line of defense for federal lands is philosophically problematic as well. It is only human nature for people to become possessive about things that are both familiar and beloved. As such, it is easy for residents of Southwest Colorado to think of the San Juans as “our” mountains. And in many ways that fosters a healthy respect for those peaks.

But that kind of possessive instinct can also lead to the thought that nearby federal lands are in fact ours to do with as we please, and that folks from out of the area are somehow interlopers or trespassers.

Making neighbors responsible for defending those lands from wildfire would only heighten that sense of ownership – and spawn a sense of wariness toward outsiders and strangers.

The fact is federal lands are the property of all Americans – even those who never use them or perhaps never even see them. They are not “ours” just because we might be near them.

Of course, that argues for a greater federal role at least in paying to fight wildfires. After all, federal lands do not belong to the state of Colorado either.

There might also be other approaches. This year’s Black Forest Fire was the most destructive in Colorado history. It destroyed almost 500 homes, burned more than 14,000 acres and generated more than 3,000 insurance claims for a total of almost $300 million. In dollar value, it was still not as costly as last year’s Waldo Canyon Fire, which cost more than $450 million.

Those costs are sure to be reflected in insurance rates. Sums like that – not to mention the human suffering involved – also suggest increased funding for air tankers; other ways to improve fighting wildfire could be good investments for state residents and perhaps even for insurance companies.

But, as the size and speed of recent fires suggest, we cannot ask Colorado’s dwindling number of farmers and ranchers to accept primary responsibility for battling wildfires on public land.

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