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Colorado lawmakers drafting 10 wildfire prevention bills

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Scott Franz
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Elk graze in a a forest burned by the East Troublesome Fire near Grand Lake.

Colorado lawmakers are reviving efforts that failed earlier this year to improve wildfire investigations and buy new technology to detect fires sooner.

Some are also expressing interest in updating building codes in areas more prone to fires.

A bipartisan committee on Monday voted to begin drafting 10 bills ahead of their next legislative session. They include proposals to buy remote cameras and invest millions to create a statewide team of wildfire investigators. The same bills died last spring.

"One thing that just keeps sticking in my craw is that the Marshall Fire, the Waldo Canyon fire, the Black Forest fire, we never have determined the origin or cause of those fires," Rep. Mark Snyder, D-El Paso County, said Monday. "I think when we don't know what the origin is, it just adds another level of anxiety and concern and worry for people."

Lawmakers proposed a major investment to support wildfire investigations in February. Supporters said the state is failing to pinpoint an exact cause for most of the thousands of wildfires that start in Colorado each year. They also said local law enforcement agencies lack the training to do the probes.

But the bill died near the end of the legislative session in May despite earning unanimous support in the Senate.

The measure would have invested $3 million each year to "provide support to local fire departments investigating the cause and origin of wildland fires."

Another proposal that is getting a second chance next year is a bill to install remote cameras around the state to detect blazes more quickly.

"I think you've got to look at Larimer, Jefferson and probably El Paso counties, and maybe some in southwest Colorado," State Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, said Monday. "But I wouldn't want to dictate where the system is set up. I just think it's a tool that we need to put in the toolbox."

The cameras got rave reviews in February when lawmakers first considered buying them.

Neil Driscoll helps manage a wildfire detection camera program from the University of California in San Diego. He said California has more than 1,000 of them and the technology was a "game changer" for first responders.

"In the incipient phase, we can fight fire, we can be on the offense, but once these catastrophic fires get out of control, we’re on the defense and we start to evacuate," he said. "What used to take maybe 30 minutes to confirm a fire by sending an engine or an aircraft now takes minutes with the cameras."

The proposal advanced with bipartisan support but died in the final week of the legislative session.

Sponsor Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, blamed a lack of money and Republican filibusters on other bills.

"That's definitely too bad, but there are many other wildfire-related bills that have passed and are passing, which is good," Roberts said at the time.

Lawmakers will review the new versions of the two proposals next month. If they are advanced on a second round of voting, they would be sent to the full legislature for action in January.

Other bills in the works aim to make it easier to remove dead trees and other fire hazards and recruit more firefighters.

Scott Franz is an Investigative Reporter with KUNC.