FEMA responds to beetle wildfire threat criticism

Mountain pine beetle-ravaged trees. (Photo/Bob Spencer)
Mountain pine beetle-ravaged trees. (Photo/Bob Spencer)
The Colorado Independent’s Jan. 9 article “Michael Brown, FEMA and the bark beetle: Talk about your looming disasters” identified the looming threat of a catastrophic wildfire in Colorado’s pine beetle-ravaged forests. Unfortunately, the article failed to recognize two important facts regarding the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) involvement in this important issue: 1) FEMA Region VIII, based in Denver, has been working collaboratively with local, state and federal partners to prepare for such a fire, 2) federal law prevents FEMA from using taxpayer money to simply clear beetle-ravaged forests.

FEMA Region VIII agrees that a catastrophic wildfire in Colorado is not a matter of if but when. Our regional office is well-versed in dealing with large fires, including the busy 2002 wildfire season. Since 2001, FEMA has declared 69 wildfires in Region VIII states for Fire Management Assistance Grants, which reimburse states for fire suppression costs.

Thirty-one of those fires were in Colorado. We have worked with the U.S. Forest Service, Colorado State Forest Service, Colorado Division of Emergency Management, Colorado Bark Beetle Collaborative, Western Governor’s Association, among others, to address such an event. FEMA teamed up last January with the Colorado State Forest Service, Colorado Division of Emergency Management, Colorado Water Conservation Board, Grand County Office of Emergency Management, and the office of then-Congressman Mark Udall to put on a wildfire mitigation grant workshop for local officials and agencies in Grand County, one of the areas hardest-hit by bark beetle.

We’ve also testified before the Colorado General Assembly’s Interim Committee on Wildfire Issues in Wildland-Urban Interface Areas on FEMA’s role in wildfire mitigation, response, and recovery.

We have forged close ties with various fire agencies, including West Metro Fire District and the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center, which coordinates resources to battle wildfires within the Rocky Moutain region. We certainly acknowledge we have areas and relationships where we have a role, and we are actively participating in the preparations and discussions about the catastrophic wildfire threat.

However, the article failed to recognize that under current law, forest health is not FEMA’s charge, nor would it be legal for the agency to reduce fuels on federal forest land. Well-intentioned individuals and organizations have approached FEMA in the past suggesting the agency eliminate the wildfire threat by simply declaring a federal disaster and removing the bark beetle infested lodgepole pines. This is not a legal option since FEMA has no statutory authority to address long-term, large scale forest management issues in undeveloped wilderness.

The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act does allow FEMA to focus on mitigation projects that directly affect the built environment and reduce the costs of all hazards. FEMA funding for such mitigation projects are typically provided on a nationally-competitive basis. Colorado Springs received such a grant in the past for a successful fuels reduction project along the city’s Wildland Urban Interface.

While we do not have the legal authority to remove the beetle kill fuel load in the National Forests, we have used a broad set of mitigation alternatives to prevent losses from wildfire and we will continue to work with our local, state and federal counterparts to prepare for this inevitable disaster. To suggest otherwise is simply ignoring the facts.

Derek Jensen is the Region VIII external affairs specialist for the Federal Emergency Management Agency office in Denver, Colo.

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