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Colorado's volunteer firefighters cross fingers for help from state lawmakers

"Volunteer firefighters shouldn't have to have a bake sale to get their new gear, that's not OK."

DENVER — Volunteer firefighters account for 70% of the firefighters in Colorado, according to the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control. These crews are currently watching state lawmakers carefully, hoping they listen to the volunteers' needs.

When Hugo's volunteer fire department chief saw the number of proposed wildfire bills moving through the Capitol, he thought, "We're finally being heard." 

Chief Jess Solze said the need is dire. 

"Am I going to buy a new set of gear?" he said. "Or do I go fix a truck?" 

The proposed bills cover things like:

  • Fund more airborne firefighting resources.
  • Investigating the cause of fires so there's data to prevent them in the future.
  • Matching local governments when they set aside money for fire mitigation.
  • Training and recruitment, which would especially help volunteer firefighters. 

"Volunteer firefighters shouldn't have to have a bake sale to get their new gear, that's not OK," said State Rep. Lisa Cutter (D). 

She said firefighters talked to her about a long list of issues. 

"They are defending [against] fires in neighborhoods, sometimes losing their own homes -- don't have proper equipment, don't get reimbursed for expenses when taking times away from work or whatever," Cutter said. "The duration of fires is extending. We were shocked." 

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Many times it's left to individual fire departments to fundraise and rely on local tax dollars, while responding across the state and fighting fires closer to home that many of us never heard about. 

"I had a several-thousand-acre fire two weeks ago," said Solze. "We never named it, we were too busy." 

It was a fire that broke out on the Lincoln and Cheyenne County border, on a day of extreme high fire danger, burning through pasture land but didn't damage any buildings. 

However, Solze said it's the record-breaking fires on the Front Range that changed the momentum at the Capitol. 

"Right in the population centers," he said. "This is the probably the biggest year I've seen that fire has taken the forefront with legislators."

Cutter said the wildfire interim committee meets every summer, but there was definitely a feeling of urgency over the last few years. 

"Last session, the interim committee last summer really started thinking, 'Wow we need to step this up and look and explore other ways to address this,'" said Cutter. 

When asked if this is the state changing the way they look at local fire departments, especially volunteer ones, and treating them more like state assets, Cutter said she thinks so. 

"Yes, I think so. I certainly hope so," she said. "I hope that continues to be the trend." 

Cutter said the goal is to set up more secure ongoing funding. 

Director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, Mike Morgan, also noted the change in tactic. 

For fire emergencies, Morgan said, historically, the state would show up with a checkbook or disaster declaration to help pay for things. 

Now the motto, according to Morgan, is spending the money up front on the initial response to a fire, mitigation and enhanced state assistance. 

That includes supporting firefighters. There are 15,000 firefighters in the state. The state fire agency as 180 firefighters in their department. 

"We are recognizing that so many volunteers across the state, if there's a better trained work force it's safer for firefighters, safer for the community and more efficient and more effective."

The goal is to shorten the length of the fire, minimize damage and save millions of dollars. 

One of the bills that passed is the one that sets aside money that especially helps volunteer firefighters. 

There are several others that are still being debated, and with less than a week left in the session many fire agencies are anxiously waiting the results.

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