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GWEN IFILL: For the latest about the Colorado fires, I’m joined by Governor Bill Owens. Governor, welcome.
GOV. BILL OWENS: Thanks, Gwen.
GWEN IFILL: Governor, you have used the term Def Con One to describe the term of readiness that Colorado is at for these fires. Can you give us an update — what does it feel like today?
GOV. BILL OWENS: Well, it’s still a huge challenge. The weather has cooperated with us today. The winds are down. It’s a little bit cooler across this great state. But we still have nine fires burning and we’re making progress on some. Others we’re still waiting to see what Mother Nature has in store. And that is particularly true with the fire near Denver, the Hayman fire, which is at roughly 90,000 acres and is still — I flew over it a few hours ago — was still burning brightly.
GWEN IFILL: Tom Bearden’s report just now talks about the closing of the Pike National Forest and the potential for closing other public lands in the Rockies. Where does that stand now?
GOV. BILL OWENS: Well, that decision will be made by federal land managers. I know that this discussion tomorrow will be on the San Juan National Forest. Basically, our forests are very dry. Until we get rain, campers and others who might be in these forests have the potential of causing fires like we’ve just seen because this isn’t the only fire that is man made in the state of Colorado.
There is a big fire near Durango that was caused by human carelessness. We have had fires on the western slope. So at this point even though just one percent of Colorado is impacted directly by these fires, we don’t want to see any further fires while our resources are stretched so thin.
GWEN IFILL: When you talk about how tinder dry the landscape is right now, you talk about the drought. Is the drought exacerbated by the fires, or are the fires exacerbated by the drought?
GOV. BILL OWENS: You know, I think the fires are much worse because of the drought. We’re in the third year of drought conditions. This is our worst drought in history right now. Our snow pack is about two percent of normal. And so while much of Colorado is green and while the blue skies are still above us, the conditions in parts of our forests are very, very dangerous and that is why these land managers are considering closing off some of these forests to humans while we, until we get more rain.
GWEN IFILL: When you talk about the federal land managers who have to make these decisions, you were traveling with the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency today, Joe Allbaugh, and with the cabinet secretary Gail Norton from the Department of the Interior.
GOV. BILL OWENS: Right.
GWEN IFILL: Did they give you any kind of assurances of federal help?
GOV. BILL OWENS: Well, we’ve gotten nothing but federal help. I have to tell you that Joe Allbaugh and the friends at Agriculture and Interior have really been great partners throughout this summer of challenge for Colorado. Give you an indication — in the eight previous years we have had eight federally recognized fires.
This year, by June 12th, June 13th we’re already at 11 of these fires in just one third of one fire season. The federal government is picking up three quarters of the costs of fighting these fires. And more resources are on the way. We’re going to double the men and women fighting the Hayman Fire that Tom Bearden just reported on. We’re going to double those firefighters tomorrow with the help of the federal government.
GWEN IFILL: Do you have enough firefighters to handle this?
GOV. BILL OWENS: You know, it’s very difficult to really size up to a series of fires that are this large. Typically our firefighters come out of college. They are trained in early June and then they arrive on the fire lines in late June. This year with nine fires in Colorado right now, not to mention 20 other fires across the western United States, I think resources are a little bit short. But firefighters wouldn’t have made much of a difference on the great Hayman Fire near Denver. That’s a fire that’s so large and so dangerous the firemen weren’t even in front of it until this morning. So we’ve gotten great cooperation. We can always use more but at this point I’m very thankful for what the federal government has done for Colorado.
GWEN IFILL: And even though not that many structures have been lost so far, we keep hearing about people who are evacuating their homes in advance of this fire. Where are they going? Are their enough facilities for people who are being evacuated?
GOV. BILL OWENS: You know, there are. Coloradoans are a generous people. We have schools open. The Red Cross is opening shelters. We have enough shelter capacity for these people. We’ve evacuated 5,000 so far. Many of them are staying with families or have made other arrangements. But at this point, our doors are open and we’ll take care of however many Coloradoans need to flee these fires.
GWEN IFILL: And what is the concern about the amount of ash from the smokes, from the fires that will contaminate the water supply and the reservoirs around Denver and around the state?
GOV. BILL OWENS: You know, that’s a significant challenge because we’ve seen in earlier fires when you have this sort of fire, it denudes the landscape. You get the ash; you get the runoff. I know that mitigation efforts are already under way in terms of these fires, particularly this large fire near Denver, because so much of it will impact Denver’s watershed. Fire professionals and wildlife professionals know how to deal with the aftermath of these fires. Those steps are already being taken. But I think it’s going to be a big challenge. This is a far larger fire than we’ve ever dealt with before.
GWEN IFILL: Other than changing public behavior and curbing carelessness is there any other way to guard against the fires? Gail Norton has suggested, for instance, thinning and prescribed burning in advance of these kinds of incidents. Is that something that you would support?
GOV. BILL OWENS: You know, absolutely. Today I was briefed on the fire down near Durango, and the fire manager said looking at a map here is where we thinned and here is where we had controlled burns eight years ago. And this is where the fire stopped. We’ve seen it in fire after fire where there is already been a fire, where there has been thinning, you can get control of these fires but if you have a situation where these forests are dense, here the undergrowth hasn’t been moved out, you are going to have an extremely flammable situation, which can quickly get out of control. That is what we’re seeing on a number of these fires in Colorado.
GWEN IFILL: And, finally, how many are you depending on the weather to do you a favor here and change the course of these fires?
GOV. BILL OWENS: You know, we’re doing everything we can from our standpoint to fight these fires. But we need some help from Mother Nature. We need some rain, we need some lessening of the winds, we need humidity. We need Mother Nature to give us a hand or we’re going to have a very tough long hot dry summer.
GWEN IFILL: We’ll have a word or two with Mother Nature on your behalf.
GOV. BILL OWENS: Good, I appreciate it.
GWEN IFILL: Governor Bill Owens, thank you very much for joining us.
GOV. BILL OWENS: Thank you very much.