Polis signs slew of wildfire-related bills across Colorado

Gov. Jared Polis signed a suite of wildfire prevention and recovery-related bills Friday, clearing the way for the state to stand up a new emergency insurance plan, standardize fire-resistant building codes and buy a $26 million firefighting helicopter.

The 11 bills were all passed during the 2023 legislative session, which ended Monday. They represent the legislature’s ongoing efforts to protect the state from wildfires, which Polis called a “year-round reality in Colorado,” nearly three years after the worst fire season in the state’s history and 18 months after the Marshall Fire swept through Boulder County.

The measures cover insurance, disaster preparedness and evacuation modeling, and the tinder and wildfire mitigation workforce. Flanked by fire officials, legislators and firefighting equipment, Polis signed the bills in four cities and towns across the Front Range.

“Strategic investments on many different fronts is really what we need to be doing,” said Rep. Marc Snyder, a Colorado Springs Democrat who co-sponsored three of the bills signed Friday. “We’re looking at everything.”

Fighting fires from above

In a tight budgeting year, a group of bipartisan legislators pushed — and passed — SB23-161, which sets aside $26 million for the state to purchase a Firehawk helicopter. With Polis’s signature, the state is now set to double its Firehawk fleet, after the legislature spent $24 million on the first model in 2021. The helicopter was supported by the top Democrat and Republican in the House — Speaker Julie McCluskie and Minority Leader Mike Lynch — plus Senate President Steve Fenberg and Republican Sen. Perry Will.

The machines are converted Black Hawk military helicopters. Colorado’s first one, which is set to go into action this summer, can dump 1,000 gallons of water in a matter of seconds and has infrared sensors for night use.

The Firehawks will free Colorado from competing with other states to contract for temporary use of similar aircraft, Polis said from a Centennial aircraft hanger Friday, with the state’s solo helicopter looming behind him.

Insurance and rebuilding

Four of the bills signed in law Friday seek to help homeowners and residents rebuild and return to areas affected by wildfires or other disasters.

HB23-1288 would create a public insurance plan of last resort for homeowners who can’t otherwise get coverage because of wildfires or other natural risks. Though lawmakers previously told the Denver Post that they weren’t aware of any homeowners being refused coverage because of wildfire threats, they sought to stand up a program after the Marshall Fire and after insurance premiums increased.

A related measure, HB23-1174, requires carriers to give homeowners more notice before canceling their insurance policy or allowing it to expire, and it sets specific rules around reconstruction costs.

“The rising frequency of wildfire disasters is making it harder for property owners to find insurance plans, while many homeowners that do have insurance have found their plans won’t cover all their rebuilding costs,” said Boulder Democratic Rep. Judy Amabile, who co-sponsored both bills.

Together with Fenberg and fellow Democratic Rep. Kyle Brown, Amabile also co-sponsored HB23-1240. Now that it’s law, that measure creates a sales and use tax exemption for construction and building materials that are used on structures that were destroyed or damaged by a declared wildfire disaster in 2020, 2021 or 2022.

According to a legislative analysis, more than 1,400 residences in the state were destroyed by five wildfires during that time. Thousands more were damaged.

Finally, Brown also sponsored HB23-1254, together with Democrats Rep. Javier Mabrey and Sen. Lisa Cutter. The bill requires landlords to fix and remediate residential units damaged by environmental disasters and “health events.”  Landlords are also prohibited from retaliating against tenants who complain about the conditions of their units.

Preventing homes from burning

One of the bills signed by Polis on Friday will help standup statewide building codes to stop homes from burning in the first place. SB23-166 — sponsored by Cutter, Sen. Tony Exum, and Democratic Reps. Elizabeth Velasco and Meg Froelich — establishes a board that will set building codes to reduce fire risk and harden structures in the state’s wildland-urban interface.

First, the board will need to define what areas of the state fall into that interface. The goal is to build homes in a way that’s cognizant of the ongoing wildfire risk.

Cutter called the bill “an exciting culmination of years and years of work.”

“We’re talking about a code board to create a uniform code for the entire state, and that’s a difficult needle to thread,” she said Friday.

Polis also signed HB23-1273, which sets up a grant program to financially help homeowners who upgrade or improve their homes or structures and harden them against wildfire threats. The new program, sponsored by Snyder, Rep. Junie Joseph and Sen. Dylan Roberts, comes with a $100,000 initial backing. But Snyder said Friday that federal money should soon be available to further fill the coffers.

Investigations and workforce

To further address wildfire investigations, the legislature passed SB23-013. The new law requires the director of the state’s division of fire prevention and control to report on wildfire investigations, and it sets aside more than $2.7 million to fund those investigations. The bill was sponsored by three Democrats: Cutter, Sen. Joann Ginal and Rep. Tammy Story.

Polis signed the bill into law at a Morrison fire station Friday, just before he signed SB23-005. That bill seeks to reinforce the tinder, wildfire mitigation and forest health industries by creating educational materials, establishing a program to reimburse employers for hiring interns, and to seek more college-level educators for those fields. Cutter, Lynch, Snyder and Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis shepherded that measure through the Capitol.

Alerts and evacuations

Two of the newly signed laws seek to improve disaster evacuation procedures. Both are studies: HB23-1075, sponsored by Snyder, Joseph and Exum, directs the state Emergency Management Office to examine the use of technology in hastening evacuation modeling, and the study must look at the feasibility of requiring building developers to perform the modeling themselves.

Snyder initially wanted evacuation modeling to be required and for that data to be published on a public website. But he scaled it back to a study after concerns from emergency management officials, who worried that real-time conditions may change and alter pre-designed evacuation plans.

The second bill, HB23-1237, seeks to include more languages in emergency alerts. The bill will study what agencies and governmental entities should provide multi-lingual alerts. The measure was sponsored by Velasco, Exum and Will.

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