Governor Wrestling with Reforms to Fire Response

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For most of his time in office, the fires Governor John Hickenlooper has dealt with have been of the metaphorical, political, variety. But for the past month, a literal fire has occupied his administration: the Lower North Fork Fire, which killed three people and damaged or destroyed around dozen homes in southern Jefferson County. Hickenlooper's been looking for lessons to improve the state's fire management, while others are concerned that Colorado's libility cap may keep victims from getting real compensation. Governor Hickenlooper talks about those issues with host Ryan Warner, as well as the recommendations of his oil and gas task force and the future of the Governor's Energy Office.

Begin Transcript:

Ryan Warner: Governor, thanks for joining us again.

John Hickenlooper: Hey, always a pleasure to be back.

Ryan Warner: Your big recommendation out of this fire is to reorganize the state’s fire bureaucracy I guess you could say. You want to move the agencies responsible for handling wildfires and conducting controlled burns into the Department of Public Safety. And right now they’re under the Department of Local Affairs and CSU, not really emergency oriented organizations. Had this structure been in place during the March fire, how do you think things would have been different?

John Hickenlooper: One thing that came out of, just looking at the first review of the actual prescribed burn itself, was that there is no single chain of command within the state in terms of how to deal with these things. I’m not, I’m not sure, we don’t have all the facts yet of how big a difference it would have made in this particular instance but clearly having one chain of command, one set of communication protocols, so that everyone is on the same radio frequency and everything, everyone’s doing the same thing makes a lot of sense.

Ryan Warner: That is to say one chain of command as it specifically relates to the starting and monitoring and extinguishing of controlled burns?

John Hickenlooper: Yes. And obviously that’s the direct issue we’re talking about now. But also there’s expands to fires that were not necessarily prescribed burns. You know fires that were on state land or in jurisdictions where they don’t have other firefighters. What we’re suggesting is that we merge that firefighting capacity into the Department of Public Safety, where they’re used to crisis management, they’re used to responding where seconds and minutes matter. Whereas in other states at least where the universities have responsibility for this, oftentimes a lot of their focus is on researching you know drought conditions and how do we look at assessing risk. They don’t have, or at least the impression we had was they don’t have the same protocols and they don’t have the same interfaces.

Ryan Warner: The same interfaces.

John Hickenlooper: Yes, in other words, so you’ve got a number of different agencies that respond to fires, right, you’ve got local fire departments, some of them are volunteer, some of them are professional. You’ve got counties that basically take control of a fire in a situation like this. I mean it’s a remarkably complicated situation.

Ryan Warner: And the point is you didn’t think the university is as equipped as say the department of public safety to be negotiating all those parties.

John Hickenlooper: Well they’re not in as frequent contact. Someone, the State Association of Fire Chiefs, they’ve been pushing for this kind of a consolidation literally since 1994. I mean it’s interesting that you have, if you have a tornado, right, or you have a hailstorm, all those other disasters, relief efforts go through the Department of Public Safety. The only thing that goes through the Colorado State Forest Service and CSU is wildfires. Doesn’t it make more sense to have all your responses and your emergency management teams and your professionals pulling on the oars at the same time?

Ryan Warner: There are a lot of questions around what the state owes victims of the fire. A number of the families that lost their homes are moving to sue the state for millions of dollars but Colorado law actually caps the state’s liability for the whole fire, the whole thing, at $600,000. Republicans in the legislature are saying that’s not enough, they want to find more money for the victims and they’re proposing creating a claims commission to dole it out. House Assistant Majority Leader, Mark Waller says they’re doing this because you haven’t taken the lead.

Mark Waller: We think the governor certainly has not adequately addressed the compensation issues and now we’re willing to move forward to make sure that those are adequately addressed.

Ryan Warner: Is there something the state should do on this front?

John Hickenlooper: Well certainly the cap at $600,000 seems low to many people and I’m not clear on whether the legislators are talking about raising that. Are they setting a precedent if they go back? I don’t think there’s a person in the state that doesn’t want to do everything they can to help the people who suffered through this devastation. I think we just want to make sure we do that in a fair way. It’s complicated to figure out what losses are and is this going to go through a court process? You know I’m not clear on all the details. So far we haven’t found anyone who wasn’t covered by insurance. Now did they deserve extra compensation? You know that’s a valid question. Are there people out there that didn’t have insurance, right? How do we try to make sure that they can rebuild their homes. Where does that money come from? Does that come from the General Fund? Does it…I mean as badly as we want to help these folks, and make sure that they are treated fairly, beyond question, what does it mean to future citizens or counties or municipalities, are they, is their liability going to be increased in some way? We do prescribed burns all the time. Have been doing them for years. If you talk to most fire experts, they believe that the prescribed burns are essential to our long term, keeping these homes that are at the interface between urban and forest, to keeping these homes safe. You know the questions then come back to, was this a prescribed burn, did it follow the protocols. And the Bill Bass report said it followed all the protocols. We need now to go and look at are those the right protocols. Do we need to change some of them, which I think we do. So if we need to change some of the protocols but that’s the way we’ve always done it, that’s what’s established process. Is that what a court’s going to call negligence? I mean that’s the hard part about this, and again, having your home burned, losing loved ones, it doesn’t get any worse. But we still have a lot of other issues that we’ve got to try to work through.

Ryan Warner: You’ve mentioned Bill Bass. I just wanted to say that he’s a US Forest Service veteran and he led the review of the prescribed burn behind the Lower North Fork Fire. You’re listening to Colorado Matters. I’m Ryan Warner. And we’re chatting with Governor John Hickenlooper as we do regularly on the show. He joins us from the State Capitol. Moving on to some other issues. One bill you’re urging lawmakers to pass would reorganize the governor’s Energy Office, expanding that office’s mission to include traditional energy sources like gas and coal. Critics worry that it’ll dilute Colorado’s focus on green energy and they point out that there are already strong and well funded industry groups for traditional energy. So why do they need a government office working on their behalf?

John Hickenlooper: Well I think the key here is we’re not going to lose our focus on solar and wind, geothermal. Those are the clean energies of the future and we’re going to continue putting our weight behind them. But we also have to recognize that we need some transition fuels to get to that green future and natural gas for one, right now we use it in a certain amount in our power plants but there’s a lot of arguments that say we should be exploring ways and investing some resources in trying to get our vehicles to be able to run on compressed natural gas. We have a large amount of it in Colorado. Again we’re going to hold ourselves to the highest level of environmental accountability to make sure that we get that gas we are as safe and as clean as possible. But it burns twice as clean as refined crude oil. It costs about a buck fifty, a buck seventy-five per gallon equivalent less and the jobs are here. We’re not sending billions of dollars to foreign dictatorships. I think our energy office should be focusing on some of those things, making sure we have a transition fuel to a greener future as well.

Ryan Warner: The boom in oil drilling along Colorado’s Front Range is worrying a lot of residents and it’s led to a number of counties and municipalities trying to put some controls on development. You’ve formed a task force to look at this issue of local control. In recommendations released last month, this panel took a voluntary approach, urging companies to communicate more with the residents before they start drilling, urging local governments to participate in the state process. But as development moves into the dense Front Range cities, are rules developed for more rural parts of the state still adequate?

John Hickenlooper: Well I think that once we educate counties and show them how much input they can have, pretty much, there are some exceptions but most of the counties recognize that this is a statewide issue and it puts the ball in our court to demonstrate that our existing regulations are sufficiently flexible that we can answer and respond to the issues from the counties. And we, with maybe one or two exceptions, we’ve been able to do that. Once you get a county that goes out and starts making their own regulations, then who knows, every county in the state’s going to want to have their own regulations. It makes the amount of litigation and conflict go up exponentially.

Ryan Warner: But let me use something of a simile I guess here. If we put ourselves in the shoes of the folks who run cities and counties, these are folks who are used to the power of being able to decide where a factory goes or a shopping center locates and what they look like when they do.

John Hickenlooper: Yeah but we don’t build 5,000 shopping centers a year. We don’t build 5,000 factories a year. And it adds tremendous expense to go through that whole localized process so that someone’s trying to build shopping centers in Colorado, they need to go through each different jurisdictions, it’s not just counties. It’s municipalities. And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, it’s just if we were trying to build 4,000 or 5,000 shopping centers a year, I shudder to think, [chuckles] we’d be awash in asphalt. But if we were doing that and we had local ordinances for every specific time it was happening, it would be very complex. I think, one of the biggest issues I think is that with some of these new technologies with discovering oil and especially natural gas, it’s, the communities that haven’t experienced drilling before are now seeing the possibility that it’s going to come. I think it’s our job, not just as the state, but as county and municipal leaders to step up and say alright, how do we resolve this. What is the fair way to resolve it? Is it to create a whole mass of red tape or is there some way that we can work with counties and municipalities and use our existing regulations so that people can feel secure that their neighborhood is not going to be threatened, that’s there’s not going to be a drilling rig in the vacant lot next door.

Ryan Warner: Governor, thank you for joining us once again.

John Hickenlooper: It’s always my pleasure, Ryan.

Ryan Warner: Democrat John Hickenlooper is Governor of Colorado.