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Changing Wildfire Responses Grow More Costly

CASTLE ROCK, Colo. (CBS4) – Firefighters around the state followed what was happening in Teller County as yet another wildfire got going in Colorado this week. The High Park Fire burned in forests as firefighting aircraft was moved in to help.

High Park Fire 7 (Teller County Sheriff's Office on FB)
A helicopter drops water on the High Park Fire on Friday. (credit: Teller County Sheriff's Office)

"It's the cost of doing business in the world we live today," said Garry Briese, executive director of the Colorado State Fire Chiefs. "The cost is not in the apparatus being dispatched, the cost is in the loss if we don't dispatch them fast enough," said Briese.

Briese is proposing a change in a common phrase. "We have no 'fire season' in Colorado. We need to stop using that term," he suggested.

NCAR Wildfire Forces Evacuations Near Boulder, CO
BOULDER, CO - MARCH 26: An air tanker drops slurry on the NCAR Fire on March 26, 2022 in Boulder, Colorado. The wildfire, which has forced almost 20,000 people to evacuate their homes, started just a few miles away from where the Marshall Fire destroyed more than 1,000 homes in December. (Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)

All over the state, firefighters are dealing with reality of getting on new fires quickly.

"We send an automatic second alarm on any red flag day, said Norris Croom, chief of the Castle Rock Fire Department. "Everybody is trained for wildland firefighting."

There is a brush truck now in every fire station of this city department.

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(credit: CBS)

At the state level, changes have been made as well, Briese pointed out.

"We've added aircraft. We've added sensor aircraft, we've added some engines," plus personnel, he said.

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The State Legislature this session approved of the Division of Fire Prevention and Control, buried in a bill for Disaster Preparedness and Recovery Resources. It establishes a statewide fire dispatch center for rapid responses to wildfires. Right now, "Our dispatch center may have to call three, or four, or five different dispatch centers to try and get the resources we need," explained Chief Croom. "If we can call that comms center and tell them, 'Hey we need thirty engines and fifteen brush trucks,' and they take care of it and get it going, absolutely, it makes it much easier," he said. The governor is expected to sign.

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In addition, the legislature approved $15 million that will help expand time on existing aircraft, add more large tanker aircraft and more contract helicopters. The state in recent years has created it's own force of firefighting aircraft as federal resources have become more difficult to get with increasing fires across the West.

Ute Pass Fire still for web
A firefighting plane drops slurry Friday on the Ute Pass Fire near Durango. (credit: Bill Luthy)

"We're not as dependent on the feds as we used to be," said Briese. Getting requests to federal firefighting authorities can mean critical delays. "The delay is built into the system. Because in fact they have limited resources at the national level. They have a lot, but they're still limited. And when you have multiple fires in multiple states, they set priorities where those assets are going to go."

It likely depends on where the aircraft are positioned as well. In a difficult fire season like the one that may be ahead, federal authorities may have pre-positioned aircraft in other states and they might be too far to have rapid impact. In Douglas County, Chief Croom has access to a county financed helicopter that can do water drops, set aside for a significant portion of each year to be at the ready.

Wildfires Break Out Across Boulder County In Colorado
LOUISVILLE, CO - JANUARY 02: People walk through a neighborhood decimated by the Marshall Fire on January 2, 2022 in Louisville, Colorado. Officials reported that 991 homes were destroyed, making it the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history. (Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)

The cost overall is rising. But with fire danger rising with drought and climate change, the cost of not acting has gone higher as well. Croom points out that in the 2016 Chatridge Fire, the deployment of rapid resources may have come into question. "You have to look at that and say, 'OK, we spent $1.5 million on this fire. But we saved 700 million dollars worth of property. That's hard to argue with."

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Overall, rapid response is becoming the standard practice as wildfires kick up. There is a mantra, says Briese. "Hard, heavy and fast. If we don't do hard, heavy and fast, then we're just making it more difficult for ourselves and more unsafe for the citizens."



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