DENVER - After the devastating Lower North Fork fire caused by a state fire crew's smoldering prescribed burn, state lawmakers will move to pass new laws governing the use of the technique.
The fire, which started in March 2012, claimed three lives and dozens of homes.
Senate Bill 83 does not impose major limitations on the use of prescribed fire, but does aim to make the practice less dangerous.
"We know it's a great tool to use for forest health and for fire mitigation," said Sen. Jeanne Nicholson (D- Black Hawk.) "But we also know that it has to be done correctly."
"I think we've moved the needle some. We can't say that there won't be another escaped prescribed burn. Mother nature controls that as much as anything," said Sen. Ellen Roberts (R-Durango.) "But we also know that mother nature will start those fires if we don't do it."
Roberts and Nicholson co-sponsored the bill, which comes out of the Lower North Fork Fire Commission.
A new state program would oversee state and local prescribed fire operations under SB83.
The program is empowered to set standards for the use of fire, but the bill also spells out some minimum safety standards.
If signed into law, at least one certified burn boss would need to supervise a prescribed fire until it is well controlled or out.
That would not have prevented the Lower North Fork Fire. The fire crews working in the area determined the prescribed fire was out.
However, the bill would also require special care when burning the type of fuel that was in the area. The prescribed burn was littered with patches of wood chips and chunks left from forest-thinning machines.
The new law would require more care to be used when burning this material, while simultaneously encouraging the use of machines.
"We're expecting people to look at other options, other alternatives [to burning,]" said Nicholson. "They may use a mechanical treatment method, rather than prescribed burns."
Prescribed fire will remain an important tool for firefighters, it just needs to be used carefully.
The proposed changes would only apply to state and local fire crews, not federal crews on U.S. government land.
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