My friends and family who have enjoyed the hit movie “The Hunger Games” have no idea how close that fiction is to reality every wildfire season here in Colorado. In the federal version of the movie, “The Wildfire Games,” our communities are thrust into the same deadly contest every year and left with the barest resources to save their homes from burning to the ground.
As a member of the state legislature’s Interim Wildfire Matters Review Committee, I listened to Colorado citizens plead with the committee with emotion and even fear in their voices, beg us to do something, anything, about “absentee” Colorado property owners who have neglected their property in the wildland-urban interface (WUI). Absentee owners are allowing brush and beetle-kill trees to collect to the point of criminal negligence, putting all property owners at risk of being victims of a catastrophic wildfire.
The absentee owner here is the federal government: 36.6 percent of Colorado land is under the control and “ownership” of the federal government. A very high percentage of dead federal beetle-kill trees that have blown down now are surrounding Colorado’s precious life sustaining water sheds.
If any other Colorado land owner allowed their property to de-evolve to the state of federal lands in the WUI and around our water sheds, the state of Colorado would declare the land blighted and exercise eminent domain to take that land under state control. We are in a critical race against time to remediate the land before it is too late for our water, air and land to be saved from the specter of a catastrophic wildfire.
Colorado and six Lower Basin states rely on our clean water. It begs the question: If a wildfire strikes, can we depend on the federal absentee landowners to fly in with air tankers and save the day? The short answer is: No. The air tanker service we get from Washington, D.C., is often dysfunctional and in decline. Our national air tanker fleet has atrophied from 44 tankers 10 years ago to only nine aircraft today. What the Feds have to offer us in a wildfire emergency with containment through air power always is too little, too late.
We cannot put our beautiful state at risk in the septic arthritic hands of the federal government for another fire season. We must control our own wildfire destiny. We must have a Colorado wildfire paradigm shift.
First, we should fund the Colorado Center for Firefighting Excellence. Colorado should be the epicenter for cutting edge wildfire fighting technology, tactics, equipment and training. This will create firefighting industry jobs, which are known around the globe for tech, tac and training.
With no further delay, we can and should acquire aircraft to turn into firefighting air tankers. This could be done at no cost for the aircraft and parts from the federal government. Using the world recognized best practices California “Cal-Fire” model as the example. This is the start of the race to save our precious water, air and land so that “Catching Fire” is fiction only on Colorado movie screens and not life and death reality on the evening news.
Steve King represents Colorado State Senate District 7 in Mesa County.