Congressional wildfire caucus pushes for better federal support
As major wildfires burn their way across California, Oregon, Arizona and other areas of the Western United States, members of the Congressional Bipartisan Wildfire Caucus joined reporters from throughout the region to discuss how the federal government could better support local and state efforts to prevent, mitigate and fight fires as they ignite.
Rep. Joe Neguse, who serves Summit County as part of Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District and co-chairs the wildfire caucus, joined fellow Co-Chair John Curtis, R-Utah; Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif.; and Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., for the discussion.
The prevailing sentiment from the discussion: The growing danger of wildfires across the West has created an urgent need for changes.
“When your community is the home to the largest and second largest wildfires in the history of your state, it’s a wake-up call,” Neguse said, referring to the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires that scorched more than 400,000 acres combined last year across Grand and Larimer counties, nearly 627 square miles. “(It’s) a wake-up call to our communities, to our state and certainly to our policymakers. It brings incredible urgency to get something done on this issue. Our fire crews and our communities, ultimately, are counting on us to provide needed investments and resources.”
Neguse said the caucus is already working to provide better funding for disaster relief, wildfire prevention and mitigation efforts across the country. Officials agreed that better funding mechanisms had to come together to support firefighting and mitigation efforts through the U.S. Forest Service, including offering better pay to federal wildland firefighters to make the positions more competitive.
In addition to funding, officials said one of the biggest difficulties in tackling wildfire risk from a national perspective is the myriad agencies and types of landowners all getting on the same page to manage forests in a more responsible way.
Curtis pointed to the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission Act of 2021, a bill he’s co-sponsoring that seeks to align legislation and agency guidance across jurisdictions.
“What I see, and what we all see, is this patchwork … of government policies that span different agencies,” Curtis said. “That’s overlapped with public land ownership, federal land ownership, private land ownership; you can see the difficulty establishing policy that reaches across all of these different jurisdictions. … One of the intents of this bill is to bring the experts to the table to advise us in Congress and help us understand how we can better navigate and come up with one policy.”
But with the ongoing impacts of climate change becoming more apparent, and as officials continue work to reverse decades of poor forest management policies, it could take awhile before policy changes begin paying off in a noticeable way.
“Catching up to properly manage a forest — properly thinning, fire breaks, removing a lot of the overgrowth and some of the vegetation — that is underway not only in California but throughout the West,” Garamendi said. “But it is going to take a long while to get ahead of the years and years of mismanagement of the forests. … The reality is we’re not going to be able to get ahead of it. We’re going to have to fight these fires as they occur, and that’s going to require preparation.”
In other words, it’s no time to skimp on firefighting resources.
Garamendi said the group was working to bring more federal assets into the wildfire conversation, including making agencies like the National Guard and U.S. Air Force available to assist in firefighting efforts, expanding the use of satellite technology to better pinpoint ignitions and understand how wildfires behave, and even retrofitting existing military aircraft into firefighting tankers.
“We’re going to be so far behind (forest management efforts), I don’t think we can overdo anything,” LaMalfa said. “We have to do it prudently, fiscally responsibly, but I don’t think we can overdo anything in our preparedness, having equipment ready, the work we need to do in the forest ahead of fire, during fire and after fire.”
LaMalfa said in order for widespread changes to be made, officials would also need far-reaching buy-in from organizations and communities across the country, including environmental groups that may have pushed back against fuels mitigation projects in the past, and help from private entities to fund the work that needs to be done.
Finally, officials urged residents living in the wildland-urban interface across the West to prepare for the worst.
“We’re going to have a very serious, very dangerous wildfire season,” Garamendi said. “People that are living in the wildlands or on the urban-wildland interface need to be prepared. They need to prepare their home, their structure. They’ve got to have a clearing around their home. All those things we’ve been told, we need to do it. …
“When you’re told to evacuate, do evacuate. … It may very well happen to you, and if it does, you’ve got to take care of yourself. And you’ve got to keep in mind: Don’t put the firefighters at risk, don’t put the police at risk. They’re going to try and come and save you. Their lives will be lost along with yours. So be prepared.”
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