COLORADO SPRINGS, CO — The passage by Congress last year of the bi-partisan infrastructure law has paved the way for the establishment of a new, federally funded commission, designed to focus on the investment in our national forests to better help mitigate and manage wildfires in the long term.
$234 million dollars has been earmarked to fund the establishment of this commission, consisting of 36 non-federal members, 18 primary and 18 alternates to advance strategies and recommendations to Congress by August of 2023. The commission will be chaired by members of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, FEMA, and the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Five members are from Colorado, including Mike Morgan, current director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.
I had a chance to sit down with him recently, to discuss some of the goals, aspirations, and realities of such a large commission in implementing a working draft of improvements to deal with wildfire mitigation and suppression which has become a constant threat across Colorado and the western United States.
Morgan told me we have a fire year now, that they are occurring every month, in every part of the state, at every elevation, and it's costing Colorado taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars each year.
Multiply that by all of the western states that are in the same boat, and it's easy to see why something has to be done, soon, to try and better manage this natural disaster.
Morgan says, "I think there are things we need to be doing collaboratively with suppression crews and fuels crews and forestry management so that we're blending those to find that balance, which will be clearly outside the box thinking for what we've done the last decades."
Morgan has spent his life in firefighting, first as a firefighter and chief in Rifle, in Garfield County decades ago, now, overseeing the state agency which helped develop and mold a state fire commission, with a modern-day approach to wildfire mitigation and management that is now being asked of this newly created federal commission.
"What we're doing to really address this bigger picture problem than just cutting a few trees down and buying another fire truck, there's more to it," said Morgan.
It is a very complex problem, Morgan says, because traditional thinking, and conventional approaches to wildfire mitigation and management won't cut it anymore, Morgan firmly believes, and because of the model here in Colorado, collaboration on a national scale is vital, he says the commission members need to check their egos at the door.
"We all have a dog in this fight, we can't look to somebody else and say it's your job to solve this, and it is our job to solve this, which means that local homeowners got to make some investments and the federal government got to make some investments and everybody in the middle has to make investments and buy-in if we're going to have success," said Morgan.
Of course, success is a relative term, particularly when the federal government is involved, but at least the conversation is being advanced here and in Washington, bringing experts together from both public and private sectors.
The list includes federal agencies, Tribes, state and local municipalities and private entities as directed by the guidelines set forth in the bipartisan infrastructure law that passed last year. Governor Polis, Senators Michael Bennett and John Hickenlooper are all in agreement that Colorado needs to have a seat at the table.
For Morgan, he says it's because of the risk from wildfire we have seen here and dealt with, the losses incurred, and the intelligent planning from the small town to the state house that has been implemented. He wants to see the same level of cooperation and collaboration when the federal commission convenes in person.
"It means we're gonna have to sit down and not do the same thing over and over, we're gonna have to have conversations that are difficult and challenging, we're gonna get a few red faces in the room from time to time because we have passionate people," said Morgan.
And some of those difficult topics include the debate over the fate of old-growth forests, spending as much money, or more on controlled burns as fire suppression, providing more incentives to grow the federal wildland firefighting corps, more public education, technology development, new housing construction mandates to better fireproof communities, and the most critical and controversial issue, climate change.
"We have to think differently and find ways to live with this fire and find ways to reduce it, from getting even more challenging in the future," said Morgan.
It makes all the sense in the world, Morgan says, to have this commission borne of the federal infrastructure bill passed by Congress because wildland fires, large and small, have a domino effect on all of us, no matter where we live.
Whether it's down the street, up in the mountains, or two states away, we all bear the burden of cost recovery when it impacts our water sheds, utilities, transportation and overall commerce.
Morgan told me, "We have to do something to develop the workforce to have the right people with the right skill set to be able to do all of the work across the board, and not just firefighters, forest management, we've got to invest in those critical positions that will move that needle."
Morgan believes the mantra, the mission of this commission is "looking forward," where and how will these issues present themselves in the years and decades to come, living with a 24/7 wildfire season, early detection of fires, aggressive attacks, bringing a more holistic approach to a federal firefighting plan.
Says Morgan, "To me, it's a duration and impact conversation, the longer this event occurs, the greater the impact it's going to be, whether that's suppression costs, insured losses, recovery costs, death, injury, etc, so how do we shorten the curve on these unwanted fires?"
And just as important, Morgan says, how to more wisely use fire as a tool to save lives and property and money.