Climate change, Marshall fire loom over announcement of federal wildfire money

With the Rocky Mountains in the background — and the anniversary of the record-setting destruction from the Marshall fire looming over the event — the No. 2 official with the U.S. Department of Interior announced Tuesday a national $228 million program to fight and recover from wildfires.

More than $7 million of that will go to Colorado to help pay for more than 50 projects next fiscal year, Gov. Jared Polis said. Congress included the money in the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure act that passed in 2021.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of the Interior Tommy Beaudreau said they chose Colorado for the announcement because the tragedy of the Marshall fire underscored the everpresent threat of wildfire as the climate turns hotter and drier in the West. The fire erupted on Dec. 30 last year. It killed two people as it tore through suburban Boulder County and burned 6,000 acres and more than 1,000 homes. In dollar terms, it is estimated to have caused $2 billion in destruction. Beaudreau called it tragic, and “symbolic of the new paradigm that we’re in.” Or, as experts warn, there is no more fire season.

“Here we are, almost a year away from the Marshall fire, which was incredibly destructive and happened in the dead of winter, which I think was a shock to all of us but is an indication of what’s going on in our planet and on our landscapes,” Beaudreau said at the announcement at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge just outside Commerce City.

This federal money is the first of several batches the department pledged to deliver this year to help with wildfire mitigation and recovery across the country. Other priorities include pay increases for federal firefighters, training, fuel management, burn area rehabilitation, and scientific research on climate change’s effects on fire management, according to the department. This allotment follows $180 million that was disbursed across the country last year from the infrastructure bill. In all, it allotted $1.5 billion to the department to spend on fire mitigation over five years.

Polis noted that 2022 has been mercifully uneventful when it comes to wildfires — a reprieve after Marshall and the historically huge fires in 2020 that poured ash down like rain. But, “it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when” there will be another severe wildfire in the state, he said. While the state hasn’t yet released the specific projects this money will go toward, Polis highlighted efforts at fuel reduction and mitigation efforts across the state. In particular, he noted ongoing work in community perimeter defense that has been assisted with federal money.

“While, of course, we’re upping the bar on attacking fires, preventing small fires from becoming large, and upgrading equipment, it’s also important to have defense perimeters so when we have these fire events we’re able to better protect communities,” Polis said.

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