(KRDO) -- Several dozen agencies and organizations have teamed up to form the nation's first-of-its-kind effort to reach a consensus on how to best prevent and prepare for major wildfires in Colorado.
The new group is called the Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative, which includes Colorado Springs Utilities, other utilities, state agencies, federal land managers and nonprofit firms.
"I'd say it's an unprecedented effort," said Travis Smith, of the National Wild Turkey Federation near Alamosa, and a RMRI member. "Colorado was chosen to kick off this initiative because of our long history of being able to partner with federal agencies, state agencies and local entities to address our forest health."
The RMRI will spend the next ten years focusing on a 120-mile stretch of southwestern Colorado -- from Dove Creek, south through Cortez and Durango, and east to Bayfield.
"That area contains more than 700,000 acres of federal, state and private land," said Tim Mauck, deputy executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, ad an RMRI member.
The RMRI will devote more expertise and resources to determine new and effective ways to deal with wildfire risk.
"That could mean doing more controlled or prescribed burns, committing more resources to fires at the beginning, a number of things," said Smith. "The public demands that we do more than we have. It's a public safety issue. We've seen the damage and the economic impact from fires. Colorado's worst fires have occurred during the past 20 years."
Smith said the RMRI formed as more people move to Colorado, want to live closer to forests and mountains, and are increasing outdoor activities.
"Look at what the Waldo Canyon Fire did in 2012," he said. "It closed U.S. 24, a major route. It burned hundreds of homes. It took two lives. It affected access to outdoor recreation. The Waldo Canyon Trail is still closed almost eight years later. And the fire led to millions of dollars being spent on wildfire and flash flood mitigation."
Mauck said the ten-year mission will cost around $50 million, with only the U.S. Forest Service having committed funding so far.
"We don't know where the next major wildfire will be," he said. "But we need to be ready for it. Hopefully, we'll reach the point where we have more smaller fires and fewer large fires."
If the project is successful, Mauck said, the RMRI will select another area and conduct a similar effort.
"I think you'll see more active forest management," Smith said. "We think this project will work because we already have the relationships and cooperation we need."
The targeted area of southwest Colorado had two major wildfires in June-July 2018 -- the 416 and Burro fires, which covered 57,000 acres and cost $43 million to contain -- believed to have started from embers produce by a coal train.
Smith said the Secretary of Agriculture, the head of the Forest Service and the CEO of the Turkey Federation started the process that led to the formation of the RMRI.