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Our View: New ideas

Wildfire proposal deserves consideration

Human beings have a tendency to be afraid of new things; just ask any parent how hard it is to get small children to try different foods. The word for an extreme fear of anything new – neophobia – is, in fact, most often applied to children’s fear of new foods.

In some ways we never entirely grow out of neophobia. These days, our collective natural tendency toward neophobia is enhanced by extreme political polarization and what the author Svetlana Boym calls “restorative nostalgia,” some people’s desire to return to an idealized past rather than face the future.

It’s an idea that doesn’t work. We can’t erase technology in order to ease its ill effects and continue to function as a society, for example.

Nor can we pretend that our former ways of addressing the threat of wildfire are adequate to our times.

These days, almost everyone who talks about wildfire (and surely that’s almost everyone who lives in the West, or at least anywhere in the West a major fire has wreaked havoc) talks in terms of “when,” not if, the next big fire comes – just as California’s top meme is anticipation of “the big one,” meaning the earthquake that will redraw that state’s coastal map.

But while scientists haven’t yet figured out how to prevent earthquakes, they have figured out quite a bit about preventing and mitigating wildfire threat. Unfortunately, our efforts of the past are inadequate for today.

Long-term drought and other impacts of climate change have exacerbated wildfire threat here in Southwest Colorado. The individual firefighters and agencies that work to keep us and our homes, businesses, agricultural assets, watersheds and landscapes safe from destruction are overtaxed and cannot meet this growing challenge.

A new initiative called Southwest Wildfire Impact Fund is being considered by the La Plata County Board of County Commissioners and Durango City Council. Those involved in developing the comprehensive SWIF plan received major grant funding and have spent two long years analyzing and strategizing what can be done to improve our chances of fighting off fire.

The basic problems are these: Funding for preventing and mitigating wildfire threats is inconsistent and short-term; efforts aren’t conducted across geopolitical boundaries, which fire doesn’t respect; previous efforts have focused on suppression to the exclusion of overall forest health management; and prevention has focused on public lands, while private landowners haven’t been able to duplicate those efforts – and fire doesn’t see those boundaries, either.

A comprehensive, cross-boundary, scientific approach to addressing the fire threat is required if we are to avoid another 416 Fire or worse.

Spearheading this effort are attorney and former legislator Ellen Roberts, Aaron Kimple of Mountain Studies Institute and Jason Lawhon of the San Juan National Forest, along with other legal and financial experts. The SWIF proposal calls for the creation of an intergovernmental authority that would use a new bonding mechanism as a revolving loan fund to provide the base financing for the ongoing work. Grants and other sources of income would also help. New legislation would allow bonding through the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority.

Barbara Noseworthy and Melissa Youssef of City Council and Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton comprise the study group that will examine SWIF and make recommendations to their respective bodies.

Much more detail will be discussed about SWIF in the coming months. It will have its naysayers. But we hope all of us can overcome our natural neophobia and engage in the process of determining whether SWIF, or some variation thereof, is the right path.

Our lives and our future may depend on it.

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