Area has just one rep on state fire-response panels

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Last January, Gov. John Hickenlooper appointed an 18-member task force on wildfire insurance and forest health, as well as a 17-member wildland and prescribed fire advisory committee.

Noting that 25 percent of Colorado’s population lives in the wildland-urban interface, Hickenlooper said that the two groups would prepare recommendations that would “reduce the risk of loss in wildland-urban interface, increase customer knowledge of insurance options and protect forest health,” as well as “increasing protection for communities, first responders and property investments.”

Those groups obviously now will face more pressure to act, in the aftermath of the Black Forest fire just a year after the Waldo Canyon fire. But the lack of El Paso County representation on the task force and advisory committee is glaring.

While mortgage bankers, insurance companies, city and county elected officials, home builders, county sheriffs, and a dozen state and federal agencies are represented on the two groups, local home owners and fire victims are conspicuously absent.

Of the 35 appointees, only one resides in El Paso County: Colorado Springs Emergency Services manager Bret Waters.

No recommendations have yet been released by either group. It has been reported that options under consideration include levying fire protection fees upon all structures in at-risk areas, establishing more stringent building codes, loosening restrictions on controlled burns, and reversing or altering state and local policies that effectively encourage building in forested areas.

Mayor Steve Bach, while no friend of state mandates, seems to agree with at least some of the measures under consideration.

Speaking at his monthly press conference on Tuesday, Bach said that the Black Forest fire had been “chaotic and traumatic for everyone.” While lauding the courage of first responders, the bravery of those who lost their homes, and the leadership of El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa, Bach made note of the obvious.

“It can happen again,” he said. “Any time.”

Stressing the need to prevent or mitigate future fires, Bach voiced his support for tougher regulation for new construction in the wildland-urban interface, but was less resolute about requiring owners of existing structures to make expensive changes.

“I’m reluctant to sign on for mandatory (risk reduction programs),” he said, “In some cases property owners just can’t afford (to comply). But people need to take responsibility for their homes.”

The governor’s appointees are slated to release their findings at the end of June, but Bach isn’t waiting. Calling for the state government to acquire its own fleet of aerial tankers, the mayor made it clear that Colorado Springs will chart its own regulatory path.

“We need to start the conversation,” he said, “and involve business, City Council and residents of the community.”

Whether he will appoint a specific task force is another question.