Today, during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on wildfire management, Mark Udall asked U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell to clarify federal efforts to help Coloradans mitigate and fight wildfires threatening their communities. He asked Tidwell about reviewing the response to last year's Fourmile Canyon fire, highlighted the potential for partnership with private industry to use beetle-killed trees, and pointed out his concerns about risks to power lines that run through beetle-affected forests.
Udall brought up reports that it took more than 24 hours for the first helicopters to respond to the Fourmile Canyon fire, which ended up being the most widespread in Colorado's history. An ongoing problem with fighting fires in Western states has been the Forest Service's aging fleet of air tankers and the availability of adequate resources to match the varying weather and terrain of the fires. He questioned whether the federal government is using its aging resources in the most efficient way, and renewed his call for a postmortem report of the Fourmile Canyon fire to better plan for future responses to fire emergencies.
Another Colorado concern focused on the bark beetle epidemic, which has left millions of acres of dead and dying trees across our state and the Mountain West. Udall asked about mitigation efforts to reduce the likelihood and impact of wildfires fueled by dead trees, and encouraged Tidwell to continue to work with private industry to look for innovative ways to use beetle-killed trees, such as converting the biomass to wood pellets.
Udall is also concerned about the threat that falling trees--100,000 a day--pose to nearby power lines, which have the potential to wipe out miles of transmission lines and cut off electricity for thousands of Coloradans. He urged continued collaboration between the Forest Service and utility companies as they work to clear trees from affected areas.
"We've got to get these negotiations concluded so we can ensure these power line corridors aren't going to either be subject to a fire because a tree falls on the line, or because you have a problem with the line that then triggers a fire and then those power lines are brought out of service," Udall said. "Let's see if we can bring some common sense to bear here and get a deal."
Udall added that the short summer construction season and inaccessibility of mountain communities will necessitate speedy action to protect lives and property. Tidwell acknowledged the serious issue and said the Forest Service is working on options to address the concerns, and get some additional restoration work done in the areas adjacent to the lines.
Kim Thorsen, the deputy assistant secretary for Law Enforcement, Security, and Emergency Management at the Department of the Interior, was also present as a witness.