The large, destructive wildfires and major flooding that have ravaged Colorado in recent years often gave responders little warning.
But what if state officials had up to 18 hours to organize before a wildfire changes directions or flooding intensifies? That’s a question lawmakers are pondering this session as they decide whether to test new technology designed to predict flooding and wildfire behavior.
The modeling system developed over several years by the Boulder-based University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, known as UCAR, uses forecasts and radar and aircraft observations of the weather and dozens of other variables to predict what’s going to happen. Researchers have tested the system by simulating the weather data and other factors that existed during prior wildfires in the West and the historic Colorado floods of September 2013.
Researchers say the modeling, when tested on past events, has accurately predicted the behavior of flooding and destructive wildfires, including Colorado’s High Park Fire in 2012 and Arizona’s Yarnell Hill Fire, which killed 19 firefighters in 2013.
“This would give us the gift of time to at least put some preparations in place,” said Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, one of the lawmakers sponsoring the bill, which would allow funding for Colorado to test the system.
The proposal has been approved by a House committee but requires additional votes.
Using the technology comes with a hefty price tag.
Legislative analysts estimate the state would need to spend about $10 million over five years on a system that has yet to be tested during a real-life event.
Rep. Tracy Kraft-Tharp, D-Wheat Ridge, another sponsor of the legislation, said that while it’s expensive, “it really is not a lot of money when you’re looking at the whole firefighting and flood” costs.
“This is revolutionary technology that we can bring to our fire and flood work,” Kraft-Tharp said.
Pitching the idea to lawmakers, Kraft-Tharp recounted how the 2012 Colorado wildfire season killed six people and destroyed more than 600 structures, resulting in about $538 million in property damage. The following year was even worse, with the Black Forest Fire in El Paso County alone destroying nearly 500 homes, the most by a single wildfire in state history.
Then flooding that impacted dozens of Colorado counties in 2013 cost nearly $3 billion in damage.
Roberts said that while the proposal has “a significant price tag,” it’s a good investment.
“We have seen the consequences of not knowing fire behavior or flood behavior and how many people die as a result and how many homes are lost,” she said.
But the bill sponsors still have work to persuade colleagues. Three Republicans voted no in the committee hearing last week, expressing concern about the bidding process to use the system. The bill doesn’t specifically mention UCAR as the organization the state should contract with, but that is the intent.
That bothers Republicans who think the state shouldn’t close the door on other organizations who may also be developing similar modeling systems.
Rep. Jon Becker, R-Fort Morgan, said he thinks the modeling system developed by UCAR shows promise.
“A competitive bid process is always better to me than just saying, ‘Nope, we’re taking the one that’s in front of us,”‘ he said.
Researchers say technology being proposed to lawmakers is unique.
“To the best of our knowledge, and we work very closely with the public and private sectors, there are no off-the-shelf capabilities that can match the fidelity of the technologies that are envisioned for these solutions,” said Bill Mahoney, deputy director of the research applications laboratory at National Center for Atmospheric Research, which is run by UCAR.
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