Polis signals Colorado will improve the resources given to wildfire investigations

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Helicopters dropping water and fixed wing aircraft laying down red fire retardant slurry fought the Ptarmigan Fire on a mountainside northeast of Silverthorne near Hwy 9 on Tuesday, September 28, 2021. The fire started Monday, and several close-by neighborhoods have been evacuated.

Gov. Jared Polis said the state needs to do more to improve wildfire investigations and data collection. 

“I think we have to have a real conversation about what resources are needed,” said Polis, in an interview recorded Thursday with CPR News’ Colorado Matters. “Given the numbers of fires we're having and the increased incidence at both the local level and the state level to hold people accountable.”

A CPR News investigation found that state, local and federal authorities in Colorado could pinpoint the ignition source for fewer than half of the human-started wildfires in the state since 2000. That was the worst rate of any state in the West.

“That was, I think, a good eye-opener,” Polis said.

He said that in many cases the fires are probably accidental, but thorough investigations and better data collection could help inform policies to prevent future fires, which will likely be more severe due to human-caused climate change. 

Colorado has limited numbers of wildfire investigators compared to other states, at both the state and local level. 

“The state only has one full-time fire investigator. There's also a canine unit that has that capability assigned to it,” said Polis, who noted that it is local law enforcement that has the ultimate responsibility to investigate local wildfires.

But CPR News found that most local sheriff and fire departments also don’t have trained wildfire investigators.

States like Utah, for instance, have about a dozen trained wildfire investigators, a chief investigator, and a state fire marshal. Utah has agreements with local authorities to investigate fires. Not surprisingly, Utah has the best rate of identifying fire causes of any state in the west, according to CPR’s analysis.

Following CPR’s report, State Senator Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, said she was working on legislation to help improve wildfire investigation. 

Polis said he was willing to support additional funding if necessary to assist in investigations.

“I support that, absolutely,” Polis said. “So we just have to see the caseload that people have and can adequately investigate. We need to see, you know, make sure that we have the ability to follow up on every fire that the state is asked to assist with.”

CPR's Ryan Warner contributed to this report.