Michael Brown, FEMA and the bark beetle: Talk about your looming disasters

The wind-whipped wildfires that chased disgraced former Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director Michael Brown from his Left Hand Canyon home near Boulder Wednesday carried with them the scent of even richer irony than what the mainstream media stumbled all over itself to report on Thursday.

Colorado is in FEMA’s lightly regarded Region VIII, which includes Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. These Midwestern and Western hinterlands see a few tornadoes every spring and summer, but aren’t technically in Brown’s feared “Tornado Alley,” which he referenced on KOA radio Thursday.

Nor does the landlocked region see anything other than the residual effects of the hurricanes that plague the Gulf Coast and Southeast and occasionally the Gulf of California; the ravages of volcanoes and earthquakes that sometimes rock the West Coast and Northwest; or even the regular waves of wildfire that rake California when the Santa Ana winds kick up.

But Colorado lawmakers at the state and national level have been trying for years to get the ear of FEMA officials on the issue of the mountain pine beetle, which has devastated the state’s forests to the tune of 500,000 acres of dead Lodgepole pine trees every year. They warn that the state is rapidly becoming one giant tinderbox and will some day explode into one of the nation’s most costly natural disasters.

While some federal funding has been forthcoming for mitigation projects such as thinning dead trees in areas surrounding reservoirs or major population centers, most of that money came from the extremely cash-strapped U.S. Forest Service.

FEMA, for the most part, turned the same deaf ear to the problem that the margarita-quaffing Brown offered Hurricane Katrina victims. This despite, or perhaps because of, the relative quiet of Region VIII (so far).

Senator-elect Mark Udall may have something to say about that. In the past he’s tried to increase FEMA’s reimbursement for firefighting costs from 75 percent to 90 percent. But that’s after-the-fact spending that in no way funds pre-emptive efforts.

“I think a lot of people living up in the mountains and surrounded by all of these insect-killed trees are feeling a little powerless,” Udall spokeswoman Tara Trujillo told the Colorado Independent during Udall’s successful Senate campaign.

Maybe as powerless as Brown felt on Wednesday? Or at least as powerless as those Katrina victims felt at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans in 2005.

And current FEMA officials would do well to take note that Wednesday’s wildfires near Boulder were fed mostly by grass, shrubs and trees not yet infected by the bark beetle. But bug experts say the mountain pine beetle is on its way to the Front Range in one big, hungry, inexorable wave.

is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy, environmental and political issues for years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He's founder of Real Vail and Real Aspen.