DENVER — After a series of devastating wildfires in 2020 and a summer that’s already bringing more, members of a bipartisan wildfire caucus are taking a critical look at how the federal government manages forests.
“As wildfires continue to increase in size and intensity, we are starting really to see fire years in place of fire seasons,” U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse said.
Neguse’s district experienced two of the largest wildfires in state history last year, so he helped create a caucus to work on legislation to help.
During a press call Thursday, Neguse called last year’s wildfires a wake-up call and said the caucus is working on releasing a resource guide to help equip communities across the West with relevant resources.
“We have to work together to find solutions that support and equip our communities,” he said.
One of the areas the caucus is taking a closer look at is how the U.S. Forest Service is funded.
“Previously they just had one account all the money went to firefighting, and there was nothing left for forest management,” U.S. Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) said.
He pushed for the accounts to be separated into two: one for firefighting and a separate account for forest management.
Another area the group is taking a closer look at is the patchwork of government agency policies that overlap in areas where private, state and federal lands are all within a close proximity with one another.
Firefighter pay is also a topic that’s at top of mind. Last month, President Joe Biden called the $13 wages some federal firefighters earn ridiculously low and took steps to raise the pay to $15 an hour, along with offering retention incentives.
“That is still woefully low and there’s still a lot more that can and should be done,” Neguse said.
Neguse said the temporary raise is heartening, but it is up to Congress to build on that work and make it permanent.
While the lawmakers discuss how to rethink wildfires and forest management, in Grand Lake, a community devastated by last year’s fires, is still recovering.
The area lost 366 houses in the fires and assistant chief of the Gran Fire Protection District number 1, Schelly Olson, says recovery has been slow.
Along with a severe housing shortage in the mountains, building materials to construct new houses are also more expensive and more difficult to come by these days.
“You have all that wrapped up in the envelope of working with claims adjusters and your insurance companies. A lot of people have had horrible experiences with insurance companies, and it just put another trauma on top of the trauma we’ve already had,” Olson said.
Olson’s house was also lost in the devastation. For now, her family has moved into another home nearby and has decided not to rebuild right away.
As the community rebuilds, another wildfire season is already underway, stoking fears and painful memories.
On the local side, the community is also rethinking how it approaches wildfires.
“Maybe it’s time for our county to look at some specific building code that reflect the fire resistant material and reflect that landscape management,” Olson said.
She also believes firefighters deserve to earn more but takes it one step further and says the idea of seasonal firefighters might need to evolve to keep up with the increasingly long fire seasons.
“This idea of hiring seasonal firefighters to do the work from May to October, I think that model really needs to be looked at again, and we need to have full-time career, not just seasonal firefighters, who are well-trained because we are seeing fire behavior like never before,” she said.
During the past legislative session, Colorado lawmakers contributed millions more in funding to fight wildfires, manage forests and better prepare the future. Grand Lake applied for some of that funding and is hoping for a grant.
Even with the help, though, there’s still more work to be done on a local, state and federal level to protect forests and homes.