A fire doesn’t care how broke you are, and that’s the powder keg of risk Colorado is sitting on right now.
Don't think our leaders don't know it. The question, though, can only be answered with politics and money. We have a lot of one and not much of the other.
In a place like Colorado, we've felt the devastation of neglect first-hand. There are never easy answers, but complicated times sow more doubt and troubles for the state's vast wooded landscapes.
At the end of the legislative session last month, Democratic leaders who control the House and Senate talked about regrets.
Mental health, Senate President Leroy Garcia said.
Wildfire protection, quickly followed Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg.
“We’ve been relatively lucky recently,” he added. And how.
Colorado, on average, has 4,472 fires that burn 168,401 acres a year, according to the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control. Conflagrations such as Hayman, Black Forest, Waldo Canyon and High Park are burned into the state's collective consciousness.
Lawmakers put only 11.8% of its $527.3 million budget for public safety on its wildfire agency, while 51.6% goes to criminal justice.
In 2017, the Division of Fire Prevention and Control received nearly $58 million from the legislature. The next year, the appropriation was more than $71 million.
But last year, the funding fell to $31.3 million, and this year it was trimmed by an additional $1.3 million.
Lawmakers managed to beef up health insurance coverage for state firefighters this session, but they also scuttled a proposal to deploy remote cameras to detect wildfires close to civilization sooner, because it came with a $2 million price tag.
The truth is, most fires — like backcountry rescues — are the work of volunteers. Stateline, the news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts, reported Monday on the dilemma of evaporating resources as fires burn hotter and more often across the climate-parched West.
That's despite the steadily increasing visits to the Colorado high country, noted reporter Alex Brown.
“We're keeping pace but we definitely see the writing on the wall,” Jeff Sparhawk, a member of the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group and president of the Colorado Search and Rescue Association, told Stateline. “To ask volunteers to get out of work 150 times, that's not sustainable.”
We might hope for help from Uncle Sam, but don't bank on that, either.
President Trump’s response to wildfires has been to grab a bucket and a pick and attack the nearest governor.
“The Governor of California, @GavinNewsom, has done a terrible job of forest management,” he tweeted in a series of criticisms last November. “I told him from the first day we met that he must 'clean' his forest floors regardless of what his bosses, the environmentalists, DEMAND of him.”
Rather than investing more in wildfire response, the president has sought the last two years to shift federal dollars to clearing away timber and brush — some call it logging — to reduce the kindling for wildfires.
At the same time, however, his budget proposals simultaneously “would also significantly cut funding to critically important state and private forestry programs,” according to the National Association of State Foresters.
Last year, the president sought to cut $948 million from the U.S. Forest Service budget, a 16% gash in grant funding for state wildfire action plans and a $45 million reduction in research, on top of zeroing out funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, as well as the national Forest Legacy and Urban and Community Forestry programs.
But you'll have to separate the smoke from the flames. Consider the lead on a McClatchy news article analyzing the president’s priorities last year:
“President Donald Trump says in his budget that he’s asking for the highest amount ever for certain wildfire prevention programs. His proposal actually contains less money for wildfire prevention efforts than the current federal spending plan.”
This month the House is expected to take up Sen. Cory Gardner’s Great American Outdoors Act to permanently restore funding to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a pot of about $900 million for public lands that's filled with money from oil and gas leases.
While national parks get a big boost, the U.S. Forest Service gets just a 15% cut of the money, and yet politicians on both sides of the aisle are eager to get their names associated with the most significant public lands bill in at least a decade.
Gardner's counterpart from Colorado, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, last week co-sponsored legislation to protect and support wildland firefighters during the coronavirus outbreak, including pay for firefighters who catch the virus.
“Fighting wildfires is already grueling, life threatening work — and even more so during a pandemic,” Bennet said in a statement. “Firefighters willingly risk their lives to protect communities across our state from wildfires, working, sleeping, and eating in dangerous and often restrictive environments.
“This legislation will support our fire crews by making sure they’re properly tested for COVID before coming to work, and taken care of if they do contract the virus. For the heroic men and women that protect our homes and our lives, this is the least we can do.”
As this virus burns across the country, let's not forget what the literal flames can do.