‘A crisis in the West’: Rep. Neguse reforms Bipartisan Wildfire Caucus to target disaster relief, prevention and mitigation | SkyHiNews.com

‘A crisis in the West’: Rep. Neguse reforms Bipartisan Wildfire Caucus to target disaster relief, prevention and mitigation

Colorado Rep. Joe Neguse and a Republican colleague from Utah formed the Bipartisan Wildfire Caucus after wildfires raged across the West in 2020, including three of the biggest fires in Colorado's history.

Ryan Spencer
Summit Daily
Smoke from the Middle Fork Fire created a pyrocumulus cloud that was seen around Routt County in the fall of 2020.
Shelby Reardon/Steamboat Pilot & Today

With record-breaking wildfires devastating parts of the Western United States in recent years, a group of federal legislators focused on wildfire mitigation has grown to include 22 members, including both Democrats and Republicans.

Colorado Rep. Joe Neguse, a Democrat, and his Republican colleague, Rep. John Curtis, of Utah, announced the relaunch of the Bipartisan Wildfire Caucus for the 118th Congress on Friday, March 24.

“I grew up in Colorado, lived here almost my entire life. Wildfires are part of living in the Rocky Mountain West,” Neguse said in a phone interview. “But in the last several years the intensity and pervasiveness of these fires have become more pronounced.”

Neguse and Curtis first launched the caucus after a destructive wildfire season in 2020, during which Coloradans experienced the three largest fires in the state’s history: the Cameron Peak Fire, which scorched more than 200,000 acres; the East Troublesome Fire, which burned some 190,000 acres; and the Pine Gulch fire, which torched almost 140,000 acres. Those fires were followed in 2021 by the Marshall fire, which razed more than 1,000 homes to become the most economically destructive fire in the state’s history.

Since forming, the caucus — which aims to elevate awareness and broker bipartisan consensus around wildfire management — has grown to include 22 members of Congress. To join the caucus, Neguse said, there is just one rule: a member of Congress must join with a member of the opposing political party.

“There is power in numbers in terms of an advocacy push here in Washington for the funding to really address what is a crisis in the West” Neguse said.

With the 118th Congress, the caucus has expanded to both branches of the legislature and is being led in the Senate by Diane Feinstein, a California Democrat, and Steve Daines, a Montana Republican.

The goals of the caucus are threefold, Neguse said. First, its bipartisan nature creates a structure for robust debates and conversations about wildfires and wildfire response. Second, it centers legislators’ advocacy around wildfire mitigation and wildfire-related programs. And, third, he said, it serves as a resource for other members of Congress.

After witnessing the damage of the wildfires in 2020, Neguse said, one of the first actions of the caucus was to introduce the Wildfire Recovery Act, a bill which would have increased the flexibility in the federal cost share for Fire Management Assistance Grants.

An airtanker drops fire retardant on the Muddy Slide Fire on June 23, 2021. This plane was seen making a run at the fire from Gore Pass.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

That bill, which passed the House but died in the Senate, would have brought additional resources to communities impacted by wildfires by increasing the percentage of costs related to fighting fires eligible for reimbursement through the Federal Emergency Management Administration grants.

Neguse said he is hopeful that having a pair of senators as part of the Bipartisan Wildfire Caucus, “will increase the odds of getting some of these legislative solutions” enacted into law.

Neguse and Curtis also introduced legislation that would have made replacement of documents — such as birth certificates and social security cards — free after disasters such as wildfires during the last session of Congress.

Meanwhile, the caucus released the Wildfire Resource Guide to help citizens prepare for wildfire danger. Neguse also released the Colorado Wildfire Resource Guide for his constituents in Colorado, which includes localized emergency contacts and information.

Over the past two decades, scientists have concluded that climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels has exacerbated the risk and extent of wildfires in the western United States, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

At the same time, the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention & Control reports that all 20 of the largest wildfires in the state have occurred since 2001, with 11 of those having occurred since 2016.

Asked whether there is consensus within the Bipartisan Wildfire Caucus that climate change is driving increases in wildfire risk and destruction in the western United States, Neguse pointed to his own advocacy on climate change and said that Curtis has also led on climate issues within his own party.

“Part of the advantage of this caucus is it is a place to have robust and honest conversations and we all come at these issues very differently,” Neguse said. “But ultimately wildfires could care less about political jurisdiction. It means we’ve got to roll up our sleeves and find ways to talk to each other.”

Neguse has also advocated for increasing pay for wildland firefighters, who he said are “being woefully underpaid.” Many firefighters fighting catastrophic wildfires in 2020 made less than $15 per hour, Neguse said. Since then, he has called for increasing wildland firefighter wages up to $20 an hour as well as expanding health care coverage and overtime pay.

Soon after the relaunch of the Bipartisan Wildfire Caucus, the Center for Effective Lawmaking, a nonpartisan organization, named Neguse the most effective Colorado lawmaker, one of the three most effective nationwide, and the most effective on public lands.

“It’s a reflection of the communities I represent,” Neguse said. “I am proud of the work our team has done working with the community on pieces of legislation that I think will  have a real impact on people’s lives in Frisco, Dillon, Silverthorne and Breckenridge.”

With wildfire season fast approaching, the congressman implored residents to prepare ahead and remain attentive.

“Residents should of course continue to heed the call from state fire officials who have provided resources about mitigation work for their own homes,” Neguse said. “Be aware, be vigilant, take the necessary precautions on the front end and stay informed.”

This story is from Summit Daily.

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