Editorial: Now is the time to prepare for wildfires

A Colorado Community Media editorial

Smoke and ash from the Waldo Canyon fire darken skies over the United States Air Force Academy north of Colorado Springs. More than 30,000 people from Cascade, Chipita Park, Green Mountain Falls, Crystola and Colorado Springs have been evacuated and hundreds of homes lost in the historic blaze. Photo by Deborah Grigsby
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Colorado’s first major wildfire of the year didn’t even wait until spring. The Galena Fire prompted evacuations while scorching more than 1,300 acres near Fort Collins earlier this month.

The blaze was an all-too-early reminder of what Coloradans went through last year, what many consider the state’s worst ever for wildfires. Statistics, provided by the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, tell the toll in 2012:

Nearly 400,000 acres were burned. More than half a billion dollars in property was lost. The Waldo Canyon Fire alone destroyed nearly 350 homes. More than $48 million was spent in suppression efforts for the 16 largest wildfires of the year. Six civilians were killed.

Already in 2013, we must turn our attention to fire from ice.

Even after several recent storms, snowpack is below normal levels and the state’s drought lingers. With little relief in sight, Denver Water and other utilities recently announced watering restrictions. It’s possible open-burning bans are not far behind in the metro area and around the state.

In anticipation of — or maybe more accurately, as a response to — wildfire season, four state legislators last week announced plans to introduce a bill that would create a state aerial firefighting fleet. The bipartisan proposal is a response to the dry conditions in the state and to the federal government’s dwindling fleet of firefighting aircraft, which Colorado relies on for help with large blazes.

“Quite frankly, we are one lightning strike, one careless match throw, one terrorist intentional match throw away from a catastrophic wildfire in Colorado,” said state Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, who planned to be a sponsor of the bill.

At this point, we can’t pass judgment on whether creating the fleet is the right way to go. As of the morning of March 25, the bill had not even been introduced. Further, the lawmakers shied away from answering questions on the program’s cost, which would include the initial funding plus maintenance. Certainly, it wouldn’t be cheap.

But we will applaud the legislators for bringing attention to and taking seriously the wildfire threat facing Colorado. The state needs more officials working toward solutions — not merely making speeches in the grim aftermath — when it comes to this issue.

The burden is not on officials alone, however. We all play a role in wildfire prevention and safety.

Make sure to take precautions like creating a “defensible space,” an area free from brush, around your home. If your city or county imposes open-burning restrictions in the months ahead, follow them.

A year from now, we don’t want to look back at 2013 the way we do 2012.