Lizzie O'Leary: Hi, I'm Lizzie O'Leary in this week for Tanzina Vega. You're listening to the takeaway. Last year, Colorado experienced the three largest wildfires in the state's history, all in one fire season.
Speaker 2: The entire sky was red and there was ash falling on every bit of the ground for about four or five days. My vehicle was completely covered in ash, my house was completely covered in ash.
Speaker 3: You can't really go anywhere and now-- But you can't go home.
Speaker 4: It's going to be a long haul from there. We're just going to put our heads down and we're all going to get through this together and, unfortunately, this is Grande County's little 911.
Lizzie: Now Colorado governor Jared Polis is already warning people to prepare for the upcoming fire season in order to avoid a similar catastrophe this year.
Governor Jared Polis: If you live in the wildland interface surrounded by beautiful, but highly flammable vegetation, it's about wildfire impact on your home and it's not just an if, it's really about when. Planning ahead and taking actions to reduce the risk of wildfires could increase the likelihood that your home survives when wildfires occur.
Lizzie: Other lawmakers are also trying to find solutions to the state's fire crisis. Representative Neguse from Boulder along with Oregon Senator Ron Wyden are pushing for the creation of a civilian climate corps to help manage natural ecosystems including forest fires. President Biden allocated $10 billion to the program in his recent infrastructure bill, the American Jobs Plan. Joining us today to talk about whether or not the civilian climate corps might be able to mitigate these disastrous fires is ecologist and freelance writer Sarah Lamagna. Sarah, welcome to the takeaway.
Sarah Lamagna: Thanks.
Lizzie: Also, with us is Mike Lester, director of the Colorado State Forest Service. Mike, thanks so much for being here.
Mike Lister: Glad to be here.
Lizzie: Sarah, before we get into the specifics of Colorado, can you describe what the civilian climate corps proposal is?
Sarah: Sure. The idea of the civilian climate corps is actually deeply rooted in our nation's history. Back in the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt created what's called the Civilian Conservation Corps, through the New Deal to get us out of the Great Depression. This civilian climate corps is very much along the same lines, where the version is going to bolster wildfire prevention and preparedness to protect the health and safety of communities that are on the frontlines of climate change.
That vision is in this new American jobs plan that's been put up by President Biden allotting that $10 billion that you just said, for this new generation of Americans to work to conserve these public lands and get people back to work.
Lizzie: When we think about how this might work on public lands, Mike, give me a sense of what it was like to live through those fires in Colorado last season?
Mike: Well, it was pretty interesting. We burned over 600,000 acres and all along the front range, cuts a rain of ash, curtail outdoor activities, cut off a lot of our forests in Colorado to recreational pursuits, and engaged a lot of wildland firefighters. It was a pretty tough summer and we're not so sure we're not going to see a summer like that again this year.
Lizzie: How do things look now?
Mike: Well, right now we have above-average temperatures projected and below-average moisture. It's not looking good. Of course, wildland fires, there's a lot of elements to it. of course, you have heat, you've got wind, those can be very variable. You can have a fire blowing and the wind blows the right direction and it'll put itself out. Other cases, it'll take a long run. We have run the longest runs we've ever seen in Colorado history this summer with these troublesome fire. 100,000 acres in 24 hours. Those variables can dramatically change the way the fire develops.
Lizzie: Sarah, when you listen to Mike describe last year's fire season, what role could a civilian climate corps play in mitigating that kind of devastating damage?
Sarah: It can actually do quite a bit so with that $10 billion, the civilian climate corps can actually work on the front lines to help mitigate wildfires, so actually being in those communities directly affected by wildfire, helping with forest thinning, helping with actual wildfire prevention, putting out fires, it can really do a lot of good work and then all of the effects of wildfire afterwards, so helping with watershed protection, those sorts of aspects. The CCC can do a huge deal with it.
Lizzie: Mike, when you hear proposals like this, is it something that makes you excited about being able to maybe incorporate those people into what you do?
Mike: Well, it does. I think one of the issues we have is capacity. We have a capacity issue on logging crews. We have wood utilization. It's one of the reasons it's so expensive to do this work in Colorado. Landowners have to pay to have this work done. It's more of a service than providing a product like it does in the southern US or the eastern US. This capacity addition could be pretty helpful. Of course, there's a lot of training involved as well.
Lizzie: Sarah $10 billion is the amount that's been put out there, but the Forest Service has estimated it would take about $4 billion in Colorado alone just to deal with the most pressing forestry issues, is $10 billion enough?
Sarah: I think everyone would argue no, but the point with that it's a huge step in the right direction. Like Mike had said, you need boots on the ground, you need training. First off, $10 billion is just a start in the whole process. Mike, would argue too that this is something that needs to continually happen. Forest management is an every year thing. It can't just be this one-off in an act, it has to be continual. This is the first time that we're seeing this aggressive tactic to really address climate change, and wildfire mitigation since the 1930s. It's definitely a huge step in the right direction.
Lizzie: You mentioned the 1930s and, Mike, one of the ironies here is that some of what the WPA programs did and with the Roosevelt era programs did ended up making wildfire management harder and making wildfires worse, can you tell me about that?
Mike: Sure. I think early on back in 1910, when we had the big fires then, the idea was, "We need to get these fires quickly, put them out," I think the 10 o'clock rule is what they called it. "We want those fires out by 10 o'clock the next morning." It seemed like a good idea at the time, but what's done is left our forest overcrowded and so we do have some issues with too much volume of wood. These forests are not in conditioned they evolved to be in. For example, ponderosa pine of the Front Range evolved to be in frequent fire and park-like stands, that's not what they look like today.
Lizzie: Sarah, where does all of this stand legislatively, and what would happen if say the plan doesn't move forward in Congress?
Sarah: Sure. Currently, this is in President Biden's American Jobs Plan which has not been passed by Congress. Currently, there are a few bills introduced in Congress, basically to layout the purposes of the civilian climate corps in instructing both the secretaries of interior and the Secretary of Agriculture, who oversee the largest swaths of public land to establish the civilian climate corps.
There's another one that basically states to establish it through already current programs within the federal government like AmeriCorps, which currently employs more than 75,000 Americans every year, but this would be slightly different and it's laid out in that bill what it would mean. It's all basically conjecture at this point of anyone's guess on how things will be split up between all of the states and whatnot. It's just currently up in the air at the moment.
Lizzie: Mike, when you think about the years and maybe decades ahead, we know that climate change contributes to extreme weather events and I wonder, on the ground in Colorado, if there is a sense that the tools you are fighting with are not enough right now or a recognition that more needs to happen, or am I getting that wrong?
Mike: No, I think you've got it essentially correct. We're seeing more tools this year, this legislative session, I expected us to have a retrenchment, but it's been the reverse. The General Assembly and the governor's office have put considerable resources in with state money going forward and when I say considerable, considerable compared to where we've been in the past. We've got a long way to go.
I know Senator Bennett also has a bill out there to do with forest conditions in the West. We think this attention is really positive, but of course, it has to end in action because we have a lot of work to do. I think it was pretty well said earlier this can't be sporadic. This is like painting the Golden Gate Bridge when you're done, you start all over again. That's going to require consistent funding.
Lizzie: Do either of you have faith that this could be bipartisan?
Mike: Sure [crosstalk]
Sarah: I definitely do. I feel like that is a hopeful thing to hear because climate has been so controversial, but I guess maybe the spate of terrible headlines that we've seen in the lived experiences of people in Colorado, Mike, have shown that this comes for everyone no matter what you believe.
Mike: Well, they are America's forests.
Lizzie: All right, thank you to both Sarah Lamagna, ecologist and freelance writer, and Mike Lester, director of the Colorado State Forest Service. I appreciate both of you joining us.
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