Consider pets in evacuation plans, animal rights group urges lawmakers –

A fire evacuation plan should include pets.

That’s the mes…….

A fire evacuation plan should include pets.

That’s the message policymakers reviewing potential wildfire legislation heard on Wednesday from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Saving pets became a major issue during the Marshall fire, which struck on New Year’s Eve last year and tore through more than 1,000 homes and businesses. Social media during the fire and in the days that followed showed residents frantically looking for pets that they couldn’t get to when the fire struck and evacuations quickly followed.

Ali Mickelson, who represents ASPCA, told members of the interim wildfire matters review committee that its survey shows 90% of residents would take their pets with them to escape a fire, but only 46% actually include the animals in their evacuation plans.

Mickelson raised the point when the interim committee, which is made up of five Democrats and five Republicans, met to discuss eight bills that legislators are considering for the 2023 session. The wildfire review committee has been meeting  for the past two months, reviewing issues such as the problems faced by residents in the Marshall-Louisville-Superior area tied to underinsurance; wildfire evacuation planning, workforce training, and how much the state spends on wildfires. 

One of those bills, proposed by Rep. Marc Snyder, D-Manitou Springs, doesn’t specifically include evacuation plans for pets. He told the committee the legislation is not geared toward evacuation centers or where people can take their pets or farm animals.

“This is just about getting people to understand their location within a high risk area, and understanding that they may be in an area with a long lead time for evacuation,” he said.

However, in response to a request from Sen. Joann Ginal, D-Fort Collins, who has long backed legislation on animal welfare, Snyder said he is open to including pets if there is a proper way to fit it in.

Evacuation planning is a growing movement in the West – prompted in part by the Paradise, California wildfire, where 87 people lost their lives, Snyder said. He told the committee that local fire departments in his district are using a program called ZoneHaven, which relies on “reverse 911” calls. Emergency services use reverse 911 calls – they go out to telephone numbers – to alert people, for example, to a mandatory evacuation.    

But cell towers were among the first structures lost in the Paradise fire, and calls never reached people, some of whom died in their cars. 

During the Marshall fire, reverse 911 technology also showed flaws, he said.

“Its unfortunately somewhat spotty. [It was] overall successful, [and] the majority of people get calls when it’s time to evacuate,” he said.

But not everyone in the evacuation zones got the notification, and some got calls who were not in the evacuation zones, he added.

Evacuation modeling, which is part of Snyder’s bill, is new. California recently adopted the approach. Colorado’s neighbor uses a free software, Fleet, Snyder said. 

The goal is to eventually have local fire districts or emergency management departments set up websites for the modeling. It would allow any property owner in a high-risk area to type in their address and see how long it would take to get out in a sudden evacuation, as well as show the best routes to get to safety, Snyder said. 

The committee turned down the proposal on a 4-6 vote.

Of the eight measures, the only proposal to win unanimous support was a bill that seeks to put more resources into the state’s wildfire workforce. Under the measure, the state would put up $5.1 million in the next two fiscal years to expand “timber, forest health, and wildfire mitigation workforce development and education programs.”

Committee chair Rep. Lisa Cutter, D-Littleton, who spoke on behalf of the bill, said the state has put a lot of money toward wildfire mitigation programs, but now the workforce is lagging. 

Under the bill’s draft, the state forest service would develop educational materials for high school students on career opportunities in forestry and wildfire mitigation, set up a separate workforce development program for internships in the timber, forest health and wildfire mitigation industries; allow the state’s community colleges, along with Colorado Mountain College, to expand or create forestry programs. It would also direct the community college system to recruit people to teach in those areas.

One of the problems the bill hopes to tackle is an aging workforce.

Rep. Perry Will, R-New Castle, noted that the average age of people working in Colorado’s timber industry is 67 years old. 

The committee also approved incentives for the timber industry on a 7-3 vote. The measure would allow for a tax credit for equipment used in the timber, wood product manufacturing, forest health, and wildfire mitigation industries, with a cap of $6.5 million per year over the next two years.

Rep. Mike Lynch, R-Wellington, said the payback from the timber industry through this measure would generate ten times what the state is willing to invest.

A bill to boost the state’s fire investigation team also won a 7-3 vote. The measure is borne in part from frustration about never knowing the origins of some of the state’s biggest and most destructive wildfires, including Marshall and Waldo Canyon, and a lack of resources and personnel to help with those investigations.

According to Mike Morgan, executive director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Safety, the state has just one investigator. When they have multiple events to cover, they tap investigators with local government fire departments.

Building up the investigation apparatus would take three things, Morgan said. Each team would need a solidly-trained fire investigator to determine fire and origin; a distinct process that must be used for interviews and interrogations, which often requires relying on local law enforcement; and, involvement by district attorneys when legal action is required. 

The draft legislation envisions setting up a fire investigation fund to the tune of $5.5 million over the next two fiscal years. What they want to do, Morgan said, is divide the state into four quadrants with a team assigned to each that would include a fire investigator, law enforcement and someone from the Attorney General’s Office. Should the team need to tap someone within the region – but not necessarily in the jurisdiction where the investigation will take place – the fund would reimburse the agency for their time, he said. 

“It’s all about jurisdiction,” Morgan said.

State law says a local fire chief will investigate the cause and origin of all fires, he noted. The problem under today’s model, he said, is that if “you’re a fire chief in northwestern Colorado and you don’t have the skillset in your own organization, you rely on the division of fire prevention and safety, and we have one investigator.”

That lone investigator serves 375 fire departments across 64 counties.

A similar effort during the 2022 to allocate funding for fire investigations died on the last day, in part over its $2.8 million cost.

In 2022, the state budgeted more than $120 million to deal with wildfire issues, with the largest portion going to mitigation efforts. The total is nearly double what was spent in the previous fiscal year. 

Under the legislature’s rules, the interim committee can sponsor no more than five bills, although individual members or even other lawmakers can pick up the ones that don’t make the final cut. 

The 2023 General Assembly session begins on Jan. 9.