Sen. Hickenlooper discusses fire disaster mitigation funds with land and water agencies in Grand County
For want of funds, a prescribed burn was canceled in 2019 — close to one year later the same area ended up burning in the 2020 East Troublesome Fire, a blaze that ultimately cost millions more to fight.
That fact came out of a meeting with agencies impacted by the fire that Sen. John Hickenlooper held Aug. 23 at C Lazy U Ranch.
Russell Baker, Medicine Bow National Forest supervisor, said he had planned to do a prescribed burn in the area in 2019, but had lacked the funding to do so. When East Troublesome ignited, it tore across U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and private land and cost an estimated $15.7 million to fight, according to the National Interagency Coordination Center.
Prior to the 2019 project decision, a prescribed burn in the area had an estimated cost of $105,000, said Aaron Voos, spokesperson for Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests.
While preventative measures may have only cost thousands, the aftermath of East Troublesome has cost millions. Christine Travis, spokesperson for the Grand County Commissioners, said total costs from 2020 through August 2022 are close to $4.55 million. The county has been reimbursed for about $4.29 million of those expenses by local, state and federal partners.
The Arapaho National Forest spent roughly $550,000 in Burn Area Emergency Response funds, approximately $10.5 million on things like aerial mulching and surveying forest boundaries, and another $170,000 on 130,000 seedlings planted across 889 acres to both reforest burned areas and prevent flooding, according to information provided by Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forest spokesperson Reid Armstrong.
And that’s not everything.
“To get the whole picture of how much the (fire) cost, you’d have to add in The Grand Foundation Wildfire Fund numbers along with Northern Water for their Emergency Watershed Protection numbers and also the Wildfire Council,” said Travis. Those numbers, too, are in the millions.
Two years on, repercussions continue to come from the East Troublesome Fire.
These impacts, their costs and the future of wildfires in Grand County were why Hickenlooper visited in late August. He’d come on a fact-finding mission after President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law on Aug. 16, which allocates $373 billion to climate and clean energy transition.
The act sets funds aside for “strengthening the resilience of rural lands to climate impacts.” So, the nine different agencies gathered around a fire ring under mottled skies at the luxury ranch outside of Granby had a keen interest in letting him know how they’d use the government’s money.
Among them were county commissioners, Northern Water, Rocky Mountain National Park, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and both state and federal forest service representatives. In his opening remarks, Hickenlooper addressed the local impacts of climate change and how the federal funding is intended to help.
“Obviously, we don’t have a fire season in Colorado anymore. So we could sit here … and talk about climate change, but I think we’re past that,” he said. “I know you all think we print money in Washington, … but we have to be smart about figuring out, how do we stop these fires from becoming so big. So … the Inflation Reduction Act has billions of dollars in here for some of this mitigation.”
He then encouraged “all who have heard me on this before” to measure the cost of “getting everything done and really begin looking at where do we get the best yield for the money we spend, and do the best job of protecting people and landscapes.”
“Well, if you need a group to help you decide how to spend that money and how to do that thoughtfully, you’ve got ’em right here,” said Curtis Hartenstine, Northern Water’s water quality manager.
Hartenstine asked the representatives to bring Hickenlooper up to speed on some of the ongoing impacts of East Troublesome.
Sulphur District Ranger Eric Freels described how closures in burned areas have impacted hunters, outfitters and guides.
“During the summer, we’ve slowly opened back up,” he said, “but the majority of (the burn area) remains closed to motorized and other uses. And then it’s just one (weather) event after another. We’ve lost many bridges and trails we’ve put in just this year (to flooding).”
Jamie Dahlkemper, a natural resources specialist with the Bureau of Land Management, explained how typically, grazing allotments open up two years after a fire. The BLM’s efforts have been focused on land rehabilitation to get permitted grazing back on fire-impacted lands.
Grand County manager Ed Moyer talked about how areas that remain closed within the burn scar “were very popular both to locals in the county and tourists from the Front Range and out of state” before the fire.
“Patience. Patience runs thin with the public two years after a fire, but patience is still very much warranted,” said Hartenstine.
Esther Vincent, a communications specialist for Northern Water, described the fire’s continuing impacts on the systems that provide water to residents living east of the Continental Divide.
Following mudslides that caused closures on Colorado Highway 125 in the weeks prior to Hickenlooper’s visit, turbidity values (how clear the water is based on materials suspended in it) in Willow Creek Reservoir were “orders of magnitude” higher than what is considered normal, said Vincent. More of these materials tend to wash in from burn-impacted areas, which negatively impact water quality.
“That water is pumped into the (Colorado-Big Thompson Project) system and is a drinking water supply a million people depend on,” she said. “So there are a lot of questions about how the degradation in Willow Creek will eventually propagate through the rest of the system.”
She said Northern is doing a lot of “real-time monitoring” of the water quality, but only time will tell if or how it impacts its recipients.
Amid all the challenges, those gathered repeatedly emphasized how, in the face of extreme crisis, they had partnered, worked together and formed long-lasting collaborations. Several participants noted that these effective partnerships and collaborations were a significant part of what warranted the the region receiving significant funding from the Inflation Recovery Act.
“Northern very quickly joined forces with Grand County to decide how we would split the responsibilities across the fire in terms of private and public lands,” said Vincent. “Then … we broadened the conversation to include all of the federal partners.”
Others described situations in which large and small agencies “strategized” to “get bigger bang for their buck.”
Chris Strum, the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s stream restoration coordinator, emphasized how important it is for the various groups to be able to leverage resources “without restrictions” during and after a fire.
As Hickenlooper listened, an interruption came — in the form of a helicopter. It was a demonstration for those gathered to see one way the various agencies have been working on East Troublesome recovery.
Dangling below the copter was a large bag full of mulch on its way to be dropped on a hillside. For several weeks prior, pilots funded by the Forest Service and contracted by Northern had been dropping similar loads over a 7,500-acre region. The mulch helps to prevent hillside erosion and runoff after a fire. Over the course of the project, 30,000 nets of mulch would be dropped by pilots flying rotations all day long.
Hartenstine said the operation would cost a total of $17 million. But it will take millions more to both help the land fully heal after East Troublesome and to accomplish what the federal government ultimately hopes to with the Inflation Recovery Act: strengthen the resilience of rural lands to climate impacts.
It remains to be seen how much money from the act will funnel to those partnered in keeping Grand County and its neighbors safe from wildfires.
What the agency members tried to bring home to Hickenlooper was that “pre-wildfire action,” such as forest thinning and other preventative efforts the partners do using federal money, “is a lot cheaper than spending $2,300 an acre to put mulch on a burn slope,” said Hartenstine.
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