Colorado wildfire investigators would get more funding and specially trained dogs under new bill

NCAR fire burns near Boulder's Table Mesa neighborhood. March 26, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
NCAR fire burns near Boulder’s Table Mesa neighborhood. March 26, 2022.

Colorado's beleaguered wildland fire investigators may finally be getting some help.

Legislation that would provide $2.8 million for more investigators and specially trained fire investigation dogs is gradually moving through the state Senate. 

Final passage is not guaranteed, but the money for the initiative is already baked into the state budget, and there has so far been general agreement among the Democratic majority that the resources are needed.

"We really do need the funding to help with investigations," said state Sen. JoAnn Ginal, D-Fort Collins, at a March 1 hearing. She said more wildfire investigations could help the state “get to the root of the problem.”

Some of the state's largest and most destructive wildfires were found to have been caused by humans, but how and by whom are often never determined in Colorado.

A 2022 Colorado Public Radio investigation that prompted the legislation found that of all the states in the West, Colorado has the worst rate of determining the ignition source of large, human-started wildfires. The state also has fewer investigators and less coordination at the state level than neighboring states.

If the bill passes a full state Senate vote and is approved by the state House and Gov. Jared Polis, it will increase the state’s wildfire investigation budget by $2.8 million annually, providing funding for seven more investigators and additional trained canines.

A similar bill failed in the 2022 legislative session.

Decades of wildfire suppression and climate change have expanded the annual wildfire season in the West, leading to more wildfires that burn more intensely. Roughly nine out of every 10 wildfires in the United States are started by humans.

State Sen. Lisa Cutter, D-Jefferson County, chaired last year’s Wildfire Matters Review Committee and said this year’s bill is one of the committee’s top policy recommendations. “If we fund investigations, that’ll provide the data we need to kind of track these things and help shape our path moving forward,” Cutter said.

Mike Morgan, director of the state Division of Fire Prevention and Control, testified in support of the bill. 

“Until you have the cause and origin, it's really hard to address the prevention side of things if you don't know exactly what's going on,” Morgan said.

Local fire chiefs are responsible for investigating the cause of all fires within their jurisdiction. Morgan said that some well-funded fire departments in the Denver metro area have the resources to successfully investigate most fires. 

“However, there's about 375 fire departments across the state and probably about 325 of them don't have those resources,” Morgan said.

The state currently employs just one wildland fire investigator to fill in all those gaps in rural communities.

Only a handful of the state’s local fire departments or county sheriff’s offices employ trained wildfire investigators. Most fire departments have few resources and are staffed by volunteer firefighters, who may not have the time or training to investigate how wildfires are started. 

After two and a half years, investigators have determined that humans started the two largest wildfires in the state’s history, but have yet to announce the official ignition source for the East Troublesome and Cameron Peak fires.

At the March 1 hearing, Republican senators opposed the bill on the basis of cost.

“While I don't disagree, it's probably needed, you know, that $2.8 million as a continuing apportionment, I just have problems with that,” Senator Byron Pelton, R-Sterling said. He said continuing to pass bills that require millions of dollars each year would bloat the state budget until it is no longer sustainable.

The bill will head to a full Senate vote next, then needs to pass the House before reaching the Governor’s desk.

Katie Jones, Deputy Press Secretary for Governor Polis, said the Governor “supports investments that will improve our ability to investigate and understand wildfires, which can provide important information to create more efficient mitigation strategies” and looks forward to reviewing the final version of the bill.