People living in Moffat County are all too familiar with the devastation that a wildfire can wreak on their communities.
In 2013 alone, more than 800 wildfires have burned almost 200,000 acres across Colorado, destroying 520 homes and killing two people, according to numbers from the Bureau of Land Management.
U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., teamed up with U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., to introduce legislation that would help the Federal Emergency Management Agency handle fires much in the same way they treat other natural disasters like floods and hurricanes. The bill addresses the fact that fires are unique in the level of prevention work that needs to be implemented to mitigate damage.
“The bill as introduced now would basically allow FEMA to work ahead of disasters,” said Udall’s press secretary, James Owens. “They’re a little hampered right now.”
As recently as Saturday, a lightning strike caused a fire to flare up about 25 northwest of Maybell. The fire currently is burning 54 acres, and 40 firefighters are working to manage it.
Because no structures are threatened and it is close to a prescribed burn area, the BLM has decided to manage it by burning a black line perimeter around the area.
Fire management and prevention are fundamental parts of the job for fire crews.
Tara Earl, a firefighter for the Veterans Green Corps, said that the Kodiak Fire is the first fire she has worked on. Until then, she had been working on snag removal: taking out trees that are hazardous due to dead root systems, bark beetle or proximity to the road.
“They call them widow-makers for a reason,” she said.
Udall said in an email that his bill would help beef up that hazard prevention effort, much like what Earl has been working on all summer.
“My proposal — which is deficit neutral — would support proactive efforts to prevent wildfires such as the removal of beetle-killed timber and restoration of healthy forests,” Udall said.
Fires can be overwhelming logistically, but even the most basic issues can get in the way of a crew controlling a disaster.
Dustin Poe, a firefighter working on the Kodiak Fire, said he’s been on about five fires this year and one of the challenges is keeping up with the little things.
“Just basic hydration stuff,” he said. “And keeping people task-oriented and focused.”
Earl said that maintaining “feet health” was essential to remaining effective.
“On a fire, we have 15- to 16-hour days,” she said. “If you get blisters and can’t walk, you are useless.”
Communication isn’t an easy thing to manage with so many different crews coming in and out of a hazardous zone, she said.
“Right now, we have five different groups pushed into one. I don’t know all their names. Moving from one place to another,” Earl said. “You got to know what’s going on all around you.”
Udall said his bill would have a positive impact on rural Colorado.
“These cost-effective efforts can prevent devastating wildfires before they start while protecting the landscapes that supports northwest Colorado’s thriving outdoor economy,” he said.
Owens said the senator is confident the legislation will pass.
“He’s got a bipartisan co-sponsor. That speaks to the seriousness of the issue,” he said.
Erin Fenner can be reached at 970-875-1794 or efenner@CraigDailyPress.com