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Fire chiefs urge prevention and legislation to protect Colorado communities

Officials call for more staffing, controlled fires and awareness
From left, Paul Valdez, wildland fire coordinator; Pete Stockwell, firefighter; and Bruce Evans, chief of the Upper Pine River Fire Protection District, demonstrate the Digital Sandbox at the district’s headquarters in Bayfield. The simulation predicts how certain disasters will play out in any given area. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

In a collective effort to protect the forests of Colorado, U.S. Sens. John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet have introduced legislation promoting awareness and fire prevention.

The efforts reach beyond legislators; fire chiefs Bruce Evans and Mike Morgan have long advocated for wildfire protections within the communities of Southwest Colorado.

Morgan, director of Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, has been a firefighter in Colorado for 37 years. One of the most harrowing moments of his career was the South Canyon Fire in 1994, a tragedy that claimed the lives of 14 firefighters.

“I remember looking up at that hillside as the smoke was clearing and seeing the fire shelters deployed, knowing that there was going to be really, really bad tragic outcomes of what took place that day and hoping that I would never again see that level of loss of life and destruction,” Morgan said in an interview with The Durango Herald.

Fortunately, there has never been another fire in Colorado where that many firefighters were lost. But Morgan has seen land destruction far more severe than South Canyon, which burned about 2,100 acres. The East Troublesome Fire, for example, burned more than 193,000 acres.

Morgan was part of the Wildfire Mitigation and Management Commission under the Biden-Harris administration. Morgan worked for the commission under Hickenlooper when he was governor.

A continuation of this work, the Colorado Fire Commission was established, a stakeholder group composed of fire chiefs, firefighters, municipalities and other management agencies. CFC writes policy recommendations on mechanisms to address fire issues in the state. Working groups have also been established, looking at preventive measures such as prescribed fire to protect communities and land.

Part of the conversation about prevention, Morgan said, has been a change in how they view wildfire.

“Historically we have viewed the wildfire problem as a wildland problem, and being more of a natural resource concern,” Morgan said. “Now we're seeing communities destroyed, and the quality of life disrupted, and the levels of property loss.”

Evans, fire chief at Upper Pine River Fire Protection District, has seen how wildfires impact communities.

“When we look at wildfire situations now, they’re big fires that take entire towns or entire neighborhoods. They burn so ferociously and so fast that they scorch the landscape,” Evans said in an interview with the Herald.

Even with nearly four decades of experience in emergency service settings, Evans said the past few years have been severe. Fires are no longer confined to a season, but are a year-round threat – one that Evans isn’t sure communities are prepared for.

More people are moving to rural areas and building homes with highly flammable materials, something Evans describes as “stunning” given that more flame-resistant materials are available.

“We continue to build houses with building material that will (be) consumed in a fire,” Evans said. “You have an industry that fails to innovate and fails to adapt to the changes in the environment. For example, we're still putting wood siding and wood decking on homes that are in the intermix.”

Evans is referring to an intermix wildland-urban interface, where human developments and structures are mixed with wildland, such as vegetation and forests. These intermixes are proven to be at a much higher risk for wildfire than other areas of development.

In terms of further preventing wildfires from destroying communities, Evans wants to see fewer people build homes in WUIs, or at the very least see homes built with fire-resistant materials. He also encourages people to be aware of their home insurance policies to avoid a costly, lengthy process of filing to rebuild or relocate.

“It'd be nice to have more firefighting resources, especially aircraft available,” he said. “And it would be great to have a more aggressive federal job training program for wildland firefighters.”

Sarah Mattalian is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez and a student at American University in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at smattalian@durangoherald.com.

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