It is a cold day in the mountains of Colorado. It is 23 degrees and there are about 7 inches of crusted snow on the ground.
It has been weeks since the area saw its last significant snowfall, and 22-year-old Marco Perez notices.
“We’re kind of just looking for piles that aren’t going to escape our little snow ring here,” he said as he lights a torch. “For example, if I were to burn this one, there’s a good chance all this grass here would go and then who knows from there.”
Perez is part of the Colorado Climate Corps, a newly formed group of 17 to 26-year-olds who are working to mitigate the effects of climate change. On this day, he is with three other people his age burning piles of wood and brush to reduce the amount of wildfire fuel in the area.
“The goal is not to prevent and suppress fire; it’s to allow fire to do what it needs to do, but reduce the impact to values like homes, communities, or water resources,” said Claire Morrisy, the group’s regional manager.
The Colorado Climate Corps started in January as part of a $1.7 million investment from the state.
The climate corps is similar to the national corps network, which, since 1933, has employed young people across the country to conserve our lands. Today, there are more than 130 conservation corps in every state but Rhode Island, Oklahoma, Indiana, and North Dakota.
The work of the climate corps, however, is different in that it specifically focuses on climate-related goals, not just land conservation.
This year, Colorado became only the second state to have such a group, next to California, which started its climate corps in 2020.
“To me it seems really important, this work,” said John Knudsen, the fire prevention coordinator for the Colorado Climate Corps.
Knudsen leads Perez’s group. By burning piles of wood and brush, they hope to further prevent catastrophic fires like the Marshall Fire that burned more than 1,000 homes in late December not too far from where they are burning piles. By mitigating fire activity, they are also preventing dangerous mudslides that can trigger after a fire, endangering lives as well as the water shed.
“Each summer, fire behavior seems a little bit more extreme. Last year, we had three of our bigger fires in Colorado history. So, that was definitely a red flag,” said Knudsen.
“Fire seasons are longer; fires are burning hotter,” added Morrisey. “So, being in cohabitation with fire is more difficult and that’s why the resources and the project work this crew is conducting is just becoming more important.”
Last year, President Biden proposed investing $10 billion to employ 20,000 corpsmembers a year as part of a national climate corps, but the funding was to come from the Build Back Better Act which has yet to pass a Congressional vote.