Colorado lawmaker warns of fire season becoming year-round
Colorado residents and their representatives in Congress are bracing for another summer of raining ash and uncontrolled blazes as wildfires rage along the state’s Western Slope.
Smoke is billowing across the Centennial State, but it’s the duration and frequency of the fires that is causing the greatest alarm. What was once a seasonal occurrence is now extending beyond a few months each year.
“We have transitioned from having fire seasons to now having fire years,” Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) told The Hill’s Equilibrium on Thursday. “There are fires raging almost year-round.”
While much of the West set wildfire records in 2020 — with devastating blazes scorching California and Oregon in the fall — Colorado experienced its most active wildfire season in the state’s history.
This year, the fires have prompted the Bureau of Land Management to increase restrictions on federal land, starting this weekend. Meanwhile, Neguse and other lawmakers from the region are scrambling to push a slew of wildfire bills through Congress, to bolster the firefighting workforce and strengthen mitigation and recovery efforts across the West.
Neguse, who described Colorado as an “epicenter” for wildfires facing “Herculean challenges,” said that at one point last year there were five blazes raging simultaneously in his district: the East Troublesome and Williams Fork fires in Grand County, the Calwood and Lefthand Canyon fires in Boulder County and the Cameron Peak fire in Larimer County.
“When your community is the home to the largest and second largest wildfires in the history of Colorado, it is a wake-up call to our communities, to our state and certainly for policymakers,” said Neguse.
The second-term congressman is a co-sponsor of several bills that he says could help alleviate some of the challenges facing Western states.
In February, Neguse partnered with Rep. John Curtis (R-Utah) to launch the Bipartisan Wildfire Caucus, focused on elevating awareness about wildfire management, mitigation, preparedness and recovery — in hopes that Congress will “lean in and really fund a response that comports with the scale [of] this particular crisis,” he said.
At the caucus’s first meeting, Neguse and Curtis introduced a bill that would unlock more disaster relief funding to help communities recover faster following destructive fires.
The Wildfire Recovery Act would make changes to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) grants for fire management assistance — a system that provides a 75 percent federal, 25 percent state cost-share in wildfire mitigation and recovery grants — by directing the agency to establish thresholds for cases in which the federal cost-share should be increased.
The measure has about a half-dozen co-sponsors and is awaiting action in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Neguse is also advocating for FEMA to devote more resources to preparing for natural disasters. The Climate Resilient Communities Act, which he introduced in March, would require the Government Accountability Office to evaluate what FEMA can do to make communities more prepared for natural disasters and what additional tools the agency can offer to improve rebuilding efforts. The bill does not have any co-sponsors.
In a third relevant bill, Neguse is trying to unleash a new federal conservation workforce to strengthen fire prevention in the West — through the 21st Century Conservation Corps Act that he introduced alongside Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) in February.
“There are a myriad of different proposals out there,” Neguse said, stressing that each of the bills serve different policy purposes and that none are mutually exclusive.
For example, Neguse said the Conservation Corps Act aims to convince both Congress and the Biden administration that creating such a workforce — focused on reforestation, resiliency, mitigation efforts and wildlife habitat preservation — is worth a $10 billion capital investment. He said he is optimistic about White House support, citing remarks from Interior Secretary Deb Haaland at a Natural Resources Committee hearing Wednesday.
Still, convincing Congress is the first step. There are about a half-dozen co-sponsors between Neguse’s measure and Wyden’s.
Neguse said that as a Colorado lawmaker, he is in a unique position to advocate for the 21st Century Conservation Corps Act, as the state is “home to the remnants of what was an incredibly successful, transferable Civilian Conservation [Corps] program adopted in the 1930s,” as part of former President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.
“This particular program has captured the imagination of the American people, and it’s starting to capture the imagination of my colleagues in Congress,” Neguse said. “To the extent that I can help provide contextual information about both the program’s history and Colorado’s connection to it, and the future of the program in terms of addressing the modern crises that I’ve described, that’s certainly an opportunity that I relish.”
Neguse is also advocating for the Colorado Outdoor Recreation & Economy (CORE) Act with Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and John Hickenlooper’s (D-Colo.). The lawmakers reintroduced the bill in February after it was initially included in the previous year’s National Defense Authorization Act before being stripped out.
The CORE Act aims to protect more than 400,000 acres of Colorado’s public land, including about 73,000 acres of new wilderness and 80,000 acres of new recreation and conservation management areas. In a recent video from Hickenlooper, Neguse and the first-term senator fist-bump trekking poles in front of the Capitol building, with the congressman quipping that “hiking in D.C. just isn’t the same as hiking in Colorado.”
“These are lands that we hold in trust for future generations,” Neguse, who chairs the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, told Equilibrium. “Public land is part of our ethos as Coloradans. It’s part of our DNA.”
With so many public and private spaces in the West at risk this summer, Neguse emphasized that Congress and the administration must “act urgently and quickly.”
“Time is of the essence. It’s important for us to get this done now,” Neguse said. “But we still do have time to do it, to get it done.”