GUEST COLUMN:
Clark addresses Senate subcommittee
By Sallie Clark

       Editor's note: Westsider Sallie Clark, a nine-year El Paso County commissioner and recently elected second vice president of the National Association of Counties, was invited to testify Nov. 5 before the U.S. Senate Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Forestry and Natural Resources, regarding impacts from the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire. The following consists of the main part of her statement to the subcommittee.

       The Waldo Canyon fire started in my commissioner district on June 23, 2012, along a popular U.S. Forest Service hiking trail just a few miles west of Colorado Springs. Two citizens lost their lives, 346 families lost their homes, and more than 18,000 acres of scorched earth were left behind.
       The Waldo Canyon fire also destroyed huge areas of vegetation and burned the soil so badly that it will no longer absorb water and has created devastating flash flooding.
       We hope and pray each time we see a typical summer thundershower developing over the massive burn scar that we will not have a repeat of the disastrous flash flooding, evacuations and fear that has ripped through the small town of Manitou Springs and communities along our major highway.
       Experts tell us that vegetation will be slow to return to the steep mountain slopes, and so far, more than $30 million has been spent on recovery, restoration, flash flood mitigation and protection of critical water systems.
       However, much more is needed. It is estimated that $50 million more is needed, as a conservative estimate, for additional combined agency funding.
       Our story is one that has been repeated many times throughout the West.
       In Cerro Grande, New Mexico, fire destroyed 400 homes and burned through parts of Los Alamos National Laboratory, estimated damages at $1 billion.
       Colorado's Hayman fire scorched 180,000 acres of forest land, destroyed 180 homes, and 10 years later flash flooding destroyed a major mile-long section of Highway 67.
       The Schultz fire in Coconino County, Arizona burned 15,000 acres, and loss recovery and flood mitigation costs have topped $120 million.
       Thousands of acres of dead or dying trees, basically adjacent to our neighborhoods, have a recipe for the kind of disaster we experienced. As our community begins to recover in the aftermath of a fire, the burned and scarred mountainside continues to generate dangerous flash flooding.
       Lives have been lost since flooding started. A major highway washed out, homes destroyed and utilities infrastructure lost. Our water system is threatened, and jobs and our economy devastated.
       There are many lessons learned, but essentially, the problem is that our beautiful public lands not controlled by the local government are great contributors to our quality of life but also pose a substantial threat to lives and property nearby.
       Hundreds of thousands of dead trees currently surround mountain towns, cross major highways and threaten the headwater regions of the Colorado, Platte, Arkansas and Rio Grande Rivers. Appropriate forest mitigation recognizes the need to preserve our national resources while protecting the health, welfare and safety of our citizens. It is important to also recognize that fire suppression should be considered as an emergency in terms of funding replenishment so that it maintains the important efforts by agencies like the U.S. Forest Service to provide needed resources for continued healthy forest efforts.
       We understand that fire mitigation projects, despite the fact that they will pay for themselves many times over, are rarely funded by FEMA. The number is getting larger every day. So I cannot tell you what the total cost to El Paso County and its citizens would be, but I can say with absolute certainty that pre-fire mitigation in Pike National Forest would have been an excellent return on investment.
       We need to mitigate the greatest threats for fires and floods, whether on public or private property. Fire knows no boundaries and neither does flash flooding.
       In the Black Forest fire, the second fire that hit us in one year, firefighters were able to successfully defend areas where trees were healthy and property owners had taken proper mitigation steps, but where there had been little or no mitigation [the areas] were completely wiped out.
       One thing is clear; we can no longer afford to have one disastrous wildfire after another. Healthy forests and pre-mitigation efforts are the only answer. The opportunities to prepare and prevent are priceless.