Prevention and firefighting measuress pass easily

DENVER - Lost in the clamor of all the controversial happenings at the state Capitol, Southwest Colorado's lawmakers have quietly succeeded in passing a handful of forest fire prevention bills.

With a multitude of small trees and few government resources to reduce fire dangers, lawmakers are looking to private companies to find ways to thin the forests.

On Tuesday, the House gave a boost to companies that want to generate energy by burning dead trees, passing Rep. Don Coram's Senate Bill 273.

The bill offers tax incentives and favorable treatment with air quality permits and Public Utilities Commission rulings for small operations that burn forest slash.

Coram, R-Montrose, also was a sponsor of two other bills that cleared the Legislature within the last week. One of them offers $10 million in grants for community groups to clear out overgrown forests around towns and neighborhoods. The other gives the governor more authority to pay for quick responses to wildfires.

Rep. Mike McLachlan, D-Durango, and Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, also sponsored the bill for $10 million in forest health grants. The money can be doubled by attracting matching grants, Coram said.

"Unfortunately, it's a drop in the bucket for what the problem is. But we have to start addressing this and encourage the private sector to get involved," Coram said.

Most foresters believe a century of fire-suppression has led to overgrown forests. But with so many Coloradans living next to forests, state leaders also want to put out fires quickly before they get big.

That's the goal of SB 270. It allows the governor to increase or decrease expenses from the state's wildfire fund, depending on the severity of the wildfire season.

The bill also offers more assistance to local firefighting agencies. Right now, the state will pay for the first aerial tanker drop, the first hour of a firefighting helicopter, and the first two days of hand crews. SB 270 offers the governor flexibility to pay for more air tanker flights or additional days of hand crews.

All three bills are on their way to Gov. John Hickenlooper for final approval.