With new fire season upon us, FEMA ponies up for 2007 Malo Vega blaze

The Federal Emergency Management Agency coughed up more than $1.6 million in federal disaster relief funds Thursday to compensate the Colorado State Forest Service for fighting the 13,000-acre Malo Vega fire in Costilla County in June 2007.

That money, turned over to the state in the form of a FEMA Fire Management Assistance Grant, may be more than a year and half in coming, but do not accuse the Department of Homeland Security of turning a Katrinalike blind eye to wildfire danger in the state.

FEMA officials in Region VIII, which includes Colorado, insist they are all over the wildfire situation in the Centennial State, which is enduring more droughtlike conditions on the Front Range this winter and lately has been whipped by brutal winds. In fact wildfire season has already started (or maybe it never ended), with a blaze near Fort Carson in Colorado Springs this week.

Thing is, FEMA by law can’t get into the mitigation business by helping to clear millions of acres of pine trees killed by a beetle epidemic brought on by aging forests, fire suppression and years of drought and warm temperatures. The agency’s role is mostly to write a check after the fact, although it does engage in disaster preparedness, consulting with local agencies.

Crazy as that seems, with the costs of cleaning up a Haymanlike blaze far outstripping prevention and mitigation, it’s the cash-strapped U.S. Forest Service that’s mostly in charge of forest health.

State lawmakers and local politicians from mountain communities just last week headed to Washington to lobby for any federal funds they could find, but it’s thin pickings these days on Capitol Hill.