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Fighting wildfires in the West: ‘I don’t think we can overdo anything’

Bipartisan caucus in Congress makes plea for more resources

A fire restriction sign along a road in Rush Valley as a wildfire burns on Victory Mountain in Morgan Canyon in Tooele County.
A fire restriction sign sits along a road in Rush Valley as a wildfire burns on Victory Mountain in Morgan Canyon in Tooele County on Tuesday, June 22, 2021. The fire started after a plane crash. As wildfires rage across multiple states in the West, the Bipartisan Wildfire Caucus co-chaired by Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, detailed the urgency to improve forest management and put additional resources on the ground.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

A Colorado congressman who co-founded the Bipartisan Wildfire Caucus recalled the record-setting and devastating wildfires that raged in his home state — all five of them that inflicted so much damage in 2020.

“We are having fire years instead of fire seasons,” said Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo. “And we know there is a lot of time left this year for wildfires.”

Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, who with Neguse co-chairs the caucus and co-founded it, recently took an aerial tour of his district in an Apache helicopter and said he was struck in particular by something he saw: “scar after scar after scar from wildfires.”

Curtis said what worries him is a wet season interacting with those scars, sending mud and other debris tumbling off the mountains.

Neguse, Curtis, Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., and Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., held a press call Thursday detailing the need for more urgent, coordinated responses to wildfires in the West, which have become routine rather than rare.

“I can’t even imagine the carbon being pumped out from these fires,” said Curtis, who last month announced the launch of a bipartisan caucus addressing climate change.

Curtis said the many layers of jurisdictions that are impacted by wildfires make arriving at definitive policies difficult, but combating catastrophic blazes is an issue that should unite everyone.

Neguse agreed.

“Wildfires don’t distinguish between Democratic or Republican communities.”

The congressmen called for additional funding for the U.S. Forest Service, more rapid deployment of tankers and other firefighting tools and the need to do much more proactive management on the ground.

“It is just so demoralizing for our people up here,” LaMalfa said. “We have much to do to make sure our lands are prepared ahead of time. ... Half my district is on fire and we are really tired of it.”

Climate change coupled with yearslong neglect of the forests have combined to create a tinder box in the West, the congressmen said, and land agencies can’t keep up with the level of treatment needed to lessen the fuels in the forests.

“The problem is climate change is getting ahead of us,” Garamendi said. “We are going to have a very serious and dangerous fire season.”

Garamendi, a former insurance commissioner, urged residents to prepare themselves, to have a “go bag” packed and do all they can to create defensible space around their homes.

If told to evacuate, people should do so.

“People need to be prepared. It may very well happen to you.”

While stressing the need to remain fiscally conservative, LaMalfa urged additional resources for forest management.

“I don’t think you can do too much these days,” he said. “I don’t think we can overdo anything.”

In April, members sent a letter to appropriators in Congress urging more robust funding for wildfire preparedness, mitigation and response.