On June 8, 2002, Colorado entered a new era of political concern: wildfire seasons that threaten the life, lifestyle and livelihood of residents. That was when Terry Barton, former Forestry Technician with the United States Forest Service, set fire to a letter from her estranged husband and left the embers in a campground in Pike National Forest. Or so the story goes.
The outcome, the Hayman Fire, was the second-largest wildfire in Colorado history, burning through 138,116 acres in southern Colorado in six short weeks. The fire destroyed 133 homes and more than 600 structures, displaced at least 5,340 people, and cost state and federal governments an estimated $238 million (paling in comparison to smaller, more recent fires: The 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire tallied more than $453 million in losses; the 2013 Black Forest Fire brought in a bill of more than $420 million). Barton was sentenced to six years in federal prison (along with several concurrent sentences, probation, and a payment plan for $14 million in restitution). The sentencing was celebrated as symbolic justice.
A post-incident study of the Hayman Fire completed by the American Planning Association presented Colorado as lacking political will for creating meaningful wildfire regulation. The assessment is right: Years of minimal regulation, limited government intervention and a lack of clear vision for forest care in our Legislature are destroying our state and we have no solution in sight. Nineteen of the top 20 largest wildfires (designated by acreage burned) in recorded Colorado state history have all occurred since the Hayman Fire.
More than 2 million Coloradans live in wildland-urban interfaces, where structures meet or intermingle with wildland, and are at risk for major wildfire damage. This figure does not include areas that annually experience poor visibility, or the thousands of Coloradans inhaling smoke on their way to work or school, or while on trails or out in the community.
Negligent state legislators have failed to fund the office designed to care for this problem: the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.
The division within the Colorado Department of Public Safety was allocated $30 million for the 2021 fiscal year (less than 7 percent of budgeted expenses for the Colorado Department of Public Safety). And in 2019, Colorado State Forest Services reported only $3.7 million from Colorado grants. Our most recent wildfire legislation was passed in May 2019. House Bill 1006 allocated only $1 million dollars from the general fund for forest restoration and wildfire risk mitigation.
We have a problem that costs hundreds of millions of dollars each year, and our state budget allocates tens of millions to create far-fetched solutions.
These solutions appear most notably in the Department of Public Safety’s annual performance plan. The 2019 plan says reducing large wildland fires is a “Strategic Policy Initiative.” The 2021 plan does not even mention reducing large wildland fires, but replaces the initiative with “increasing live-fire training for firefighters across Colorado.” The language shift is important and understandable — it’s hard to reduce the occurrence of wildland fires when there is no funding available to reduce fuel loads in the wildland-urban interface. The rhetoric also represents an inability to imagine meaningful prevention strategies, and resigns Colorado to a future filled with wildfires.
Individual counties have taken it upon themselves to address wildfires. As early as 2010, building and planning departments implemented Firewise and Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) policies in building code and land-use regulations for new property development. These efforts, creative and impressive as they are, fail to address existing properties.
State plans suggest a future filled with smoke; county plans address a future without the ability to resolve the past. Simply put: We need better plans and we need more money to implement those plans. We need political will capable of securing more funding for projects that promote wildfire mitigation; we need financial incentives that recognize an ever-growing need; we need a vision for environmental justice that isn’t contingent on arresting and sentencing single individuals; we need more than our elected officials have provided.
Sam Stephenson lives, writes and runs with his partner Kelli in Colorado Springs. He has a master’s degree in social work from Metropolitan State University in Denver and runs a small literature nonprofit: Converge.