The nine-member Colorado delegation to Washington announced today it is working together as a bipartisan group to wring as much help as it can from the federal government to address the wildfires presently raging in the state, fouling the air across hundreds of miles of Front Range, racking up enormous sums in damages and displacing tens of thousands of residents.
“Colorado is facing one of the most severe fire seasons on record,” the delegation wrote in a release. “The Incident Commanders and their teams – the best firefighters in the world – are in charge of fighting these fires. We are committed to working with the state and the federal governments to support those firefighters on the ground with all of the resources they need to battle and contain these large fires.
“The [Obama] administration has assured us that fighting these fires is a top priority, and local emergency responders are acting valiantly. We need every level of government dedicated to containing these fires and ensuring the safety of Coloradans and the health of our forests…. [T]he Congressional delegation is unified in working together with all hands on deck to extinguish these devastating blazes.”
The delegation includes Democratic Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, Democratic Reps. Diana DeGette, Jared Polis and Ed Perlmutter as well as Republican Reps. Scott Tipton, Cory Gardner, Doug Lamborn and Mike Coffman.
Major fires are burning outside of Boulder north of Denver and in Colorado Springs south of Denver. The Waldo Canyon fire above Colorado Springs exploded overnight, engulfing homes and spurring officials to evacuate more than 30,000 residents, including Air Force Academy cadets.
Pres. Obama called Gov. John Hickenlooper and Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach earlier today, seeking updates. The president plans to visit Colorado on Friday.
“The President reiterated his administration’s focus, through the US Forest Service as well as the Department of Interior and FEMA, on continuing to bring all resources to bear to assist local responders in Colorado and a number of Western States currently being impacted by fires,” the White House said in a release.
“Seventeen air tankers have cycled in and out of firefighting action over the last 48 hours across the western states. More than 8,400 personnel, 578 fire engines and 79 helicopters are operating on wildfires around the U.S., with more than half of active federal wildfire-fighting resources are currently staged in Colorado.”
Legislative staffers in D.C. told the Independent that members of the Colorado delegation were being constantly updated by incident commanders on the ground, who are dictating what resources to tap and how best to put them to service. The delegation specifically is looking to lean on the military for additional air support and to liaison with the Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA to help fight the fires and provide resources to displaced Coloradans.
Considerations about what specific programs FEMA will make available in Colorado are evolving as conditions change. One staffer said long-term grants meant to help increase access to regions where the fires are burning and where they will break out as the fire season continues are under consideration, for example.
It’s also unclear what help the military can best provide. For now, the Forest Service is leaning on its own fire tankers to fight the flames from the sky. They work better in the narrow canyons where the blazes are burning than C-130s offered by the military.
In his own release, Sen. Udall lauded recent action in DC to bulk up Forest Service fire-fighting tanker fleets.
“As more fires spring up across the West, demands on the U.S. Forest Service’s air-support resources will grow. That is why I’m proud that we were able to press Congress and the president to respond quickly and pass a bill that allows the Forest Service to quickly add seven new, next-generations air tankers to its fleet.
“I am actively working with the Forest Service, the military and others to make sure that firefighters continue to have access to the resources they need to do their jobs.”
Udall also mentioned efforts to better manage Colorado’s pine forests, plagued in recent years by Bark Beetle infestations that have destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of trees.
Although policymakers have focused attention on the deadwood beetle-kill trees, researchers say that in the historic hot and dry conditions now plaguing the west, live trees are as good a fuel as dead trees and that focusing on beetle-kill diverts attention from other efforts that might be more effective in preempting dangerous and destructive fires.
Note: This post was updated to include information on Pres. Obama’s response to the fires.
[ Image of Flagstaff fire above Boulder via Jerry W Lewis at Flickr ]