Written by Dominic Dezzutti

Colorado’s first major wildfire of the season has not only brought devastation, but also some important political issues to the surface. Since Colorado routinely deals with significant fires each year, it will be very important for state officials to address these political issues quickly.

First and foremost, Gov. John Hickenlooper must follow up on the prescribed burn policy of the state forest service that he has recently suspended. The use of prescribed burns, when handled responsibly, can be a productive tool for forest managers. However, the management of those burns reflects directly on the state, and eventually, it will reflect on the state’s leaders.

While the conditions of when it is safe to set a prescribed burn have been under intense scrutiny, that is not the key element of the prescribed burn policy that is the most important for state officials to address.

The biggest problem with the Lower North Fork Fire in relation to the prescribed burn was not the conditions of when it was set, but how reports of smoke after the initial burn were handled. Reports from homeowners who claim they saw smoke long after the initial prescribed burn that were reportedly ignored by 911 dispatchers is the most important problem to solve.

If the complete investigation of the Lower North Fork Fire shows that officials could have stopped or slowed the fire if they would have simply followed up on reports from homeowners, there will be serious questions of criminal negligence. And while the initial blame may fall upon dispatchers, eventually, the problems will be tied to state leaders.

The other major issue that has the potential to bring serious political ramifications is the reverse 911 warning problems. The problem right now is two-fold. One, there are conflicting reports on the problems with the system, from the sheriff’s office, the private company who makes the calls and from the homeowners. And secondly, those critical warning calls may be one of the causes for the two reported deaths in the North Fork fire.

Officials have said that the Lucas couple did in fact receive a reverse 911 call, but neighbors disagree.

Moaneti and Sam Lucas (credit: CBS)

But even if the Lucas couple did receive a call, many other homeowners are reporting problems with the system. With lives on the line and other fires likely to hit areas with more homeowners, state leaders will need to display a firm grasp of this problem. Without seeing that problem addressed, citizens will give more credence to the claims from homeowners that the problems are persistent and more credence to the idea that state leaders are unable to handle it.

Any crisis or disaster will test a state’s leaders. But it is critical for leaders to know how important handling not only the crisis is, but also following through on the problems can come out of the crisis.

Things like state budgets and new laws will affect citizens much more than wildfire management issues. However, most citizens will remember how state leaders handle crises like wildfires more than they will remember budget problems.

And since this is only the beginning of wildfire season in Colorado, we will quickly see if leaders have learned anything from the North Fork fire or if more difficult lessons are ahead.

About The Blogger

– Dominic Dezzutti, producer of the Colorado Decides debate series, a co-production of CBS4 and Colorado Public Television, looks at the local and national political scene in his CBSDenver.com blog. Read new entries here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Dezzutti writes about federal, state and local matters and how our elected leaders are handling the issues important to Colorado. Dezzutti also produces the Emmy winning Colorado Inside Out, hosted by Raj Chohan, on Colorado Public Television.

Comments (5)
  1. mhalperb says:

    No doubt that this fire has been devastating and tragic. However, you fail to point out that folks who live in these mountainous areas must also take responsibility in their own safety. To me if there was a major plume of smoke and obvious smoke in the air I wouldn’t be waiting for a 911 call to pack up and leave. I would hightail it out of there and if it is a false alarm so be it. There are inherent dangers living in the mountains and although the fire was an unfortunate result of a wind event that re-ignited the prescribed burn, these burns are completed by highly experienced and professional fire fighters in which the number one goal is safety and the containment of the fire. Malice and negligence are most likely not the factors that caused the fire but an unexpected wind event of great magnitude. I am in no way dismissing the loss of life and property during this fire-it is tragic and horrible. The cause and origin and events must be investigated and yes responsibility must be claimed in which I am sure the State will do. But so many times the media casts a black shadow on those involved without really researching the facts.

  2. RBW says:

    The wind event was most certainly not “unexpected” – indeed, it had been predicted in the weather forecasts.

  3. Edward C says:

    This governor is a baffoon. HOW DARE HE BLAME GLOBAL WARMING FOR THE FIRE???? And then, to say that the individuals don’t have liability as “that’s what insurance is for.” Shameful!

    And what the hell was more important in Mexico Mr. Governor? Were you meeting to bring over more illegals to take jobs?

  4. phoebephoenix says:

    The reverse 911 calls and the dispatchers, I believe, are the responsibility of the County, not the State. It would be Jefferson County’s responsibility that those functions are working. I don’t believe the State provides much assistance with that.

  5. Zane Dennis says:

    Why are you choosing to focus on the aftermath of the fire (problems with notification and so on) and ignoring the root cause – State of Colorado prescribed burn when they clearly should not have done so and attendant lack of preparation, notification and common sense? The initial prescribed burn was a mistake and handled poorly and everyone knows that (but the State will not admit it).. Lives were lost and millions of dollars of property was destroyed; tell me what would happen if an ordinary citizen had started the fire? Prosecution and conviction with a hefty penalty if not prison time, of course. Why should the State of Colorado and their employees be treated any differently?

    Any mistakes in notification are secondary to the root cause. The local authorities that made those mistakes might be accessories to a crime after the fact, but the State of Colorado and their employees are guilty of the crime.