Vail Daily column: Mitigating future forest fires
In Colorado and throughout the West, we have seen increases in devastating wildfires that are damaging property and habitats and resulting in the tragic loss of life. Most recently the Hayden Pass fire burning near Coaldale scorched more than 16,000 acres, the Beaver Creek Fire continues to burn growing past 30,000 acres, and the Cold Springs Fire in Boulder County destroyed eight homes.
As temperatures continue to rise and dry conditions persist, it is likely that we will continue to face catastrophic wildfires. Fortunately, unlike other natural disasters like hurricanes or earthquakes, there are proven mitigation efforts that can lessen the severity of wildfires.
That’s why in July we introduced The Wildfire Mitigation Assistance Act, with Republican Senators Mike Crapo and Jim Risch from Idaho and Democratic Senator John Tester from Montana, to provide more funding to mitigate the severity and the effects of wildfires. Our bill would treat wildfires in the same manner as other natural disasters by allowing Hazard Mitigation Assistance funding — federal funding provided to help communities implement measures after a disaster to reduce risks of future disasters — to be provided to states affected by catastrophic wildfires.
Currently, Hazard Mitigation Assistance funding can only be provided to states after the president declares a major disaster. However, unlike in the case of floods, tornadoes, or other disasters, wildfires usually do not receive a major disaster declaration. Instead funding to fight wildfires comes from Fire Management Assistance Grants, and this funding is only available while the fire is actively burning. This means that funding is not provided for mitigation efforts to protect homes from the next wildfire or prevent post-fire flooding and erosion — despite the fact that such work is critical.
This is a problem because while we can’t reduce the strength of an impending hurricane, mitigation efforts are actually proven to reduce the costs, severity and long-term effects of wildfires on communities, properties and watersheds. For example, we know that for every dollar we spend on mitigation efforts like reducing fuel loads, there is an average savings of $4.
The importance of investing in fire mitigation efforts is also something we have heard about from firefighters, forestry experts, local officials, researchers and community members across the state. Last year, we held a Fire and Forestry Summit in Colorado Springs with Sen. Gardner to hear recommendations from Coloradans with real-world, hands-on experience. Their report focused on increasing education, outreach and investment in wildfire prevention work. That’s also why we have continued to fight in Congress to end fire borrowing and provide additional funding for forest management.
Colorado has experienced severe wildfires that have caused immeasurable damage, and we need to do more to prepare for these disasters to help save lives and protect property. We have met with the families who have lost their homes after the High Park Fire and seen the burn scars and flooding that has resulted from fires like the Black Forest and Waldo Canyon. Several homes were saved during the recent fires because of the proactive mitigation work done by homeowners.
We need to be working in Congress to do everything we can to reduce the severity and damage of these disasters. The Wildfire Mitigation Assistance Act will play an important role in providing communities with the resources they need.
Michael Bennet is the senior U.S. senator from Colorado.