Bipartisan members of Congress launch wildfire caucus

Flames spin due to extreme heat and winds just off of Grand Lake east of U.S. 34 in Colorado, after the East Troublesome Fire jumped the highway in October 2020. (Photo by Thomas Cooper/Special to Colorado Newsline)

Congressional Republicans and Democrats from the West are banding together with a common interest in mitigating and responding to the increasing intensity and frequency of wildfires.

In a sign of the rising danger wildfires pose, Rep. Joe Neguse of Colorado, a Democrat, and Rep. John Curtis, a Utah Republican, announced plans to launch the Bipartisan Wildfire Caucus in the U.S. House. The lawmakers will seek ways to better reduce the danger posed by wildfires and provide relief to those affected. 

The group, with an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, will be a vehicle for members of both parties to raise the issue’s profile and build consensus about how to manage wildfire damage, bolster preparation and improve recovery efforts, according to a joint news release from Neguse and Curtis. 

There are dozens of caucuses in the House formed by members, on issues ranging from hepatitis to hockey to oil and gas. The voluntary groups of lawmakers with shared interests look to influence policy.

Spurred by factors including climate change, wildfires burned about 10.3 million acres in the United States in 2020, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, a government group dedicated to fire management. That broke a record set in 2015 and marked the 10th time since 2004 the number has topped 8 million acres. 

Before 2004, NIFC had never recorded a year of more than 8 million acres burned since it adopted its modern record keeping in 1983.

Three fires in Colorado last year were worse than any on record. More acres burned in Arizona in 2020 than the previous two years combined. A relatively moderate year in Nevada still included catastrophic blazes. Even in Montana, which saw less fire damage in 2020 than in recent years, fires in other Western states led to unhealthy air conditions in parts of the state.

Treating causes

The formation of the wildfire caucus, which by its nature will include members with different fundamental political ideologies, shows that consensus could be building toward certain aspects of wildfire response, especially emergency strategies and recovery efforts. 

But it remains to be seen if members can work across the aisle to address the underlying causes, especially climate change. 

Experts agree that climate change is at least one factor that has allowed wildfires to become more dangerous in recent years. Hotter, longer summers dry out forests and leave them more susceptible to catastrophic burning. It also has lengthened the fire season itself.

The joint release from Neguse and Curtis did not mention climate change, though Neguse said in an interview “ultimately, ways to address the long-term consequences of climate change” would be among the issues the group would tackle.

Johanna Neumann, who directs the energy program at the environmental group Environment America, said increased wildfires are a symptom of climate change. While it’s important to treat that symptom, she said lawmakers should not lose focus on the need to treat the underlying condition.

“We have allowed global warming to become a crisis,” she said. “In response to a crisis, you need action groups to adapt to that crisis. But you also have to address the underlying cause of the crisis. … We must not allow that to distract us from solving the larger problem. And there’s no reason that the two need to be mutually exclusive.”

Neumann said because of the connection to climate change, a transition to renewable energy would help address wildfires. 

Another factor in worsening wildfires is that forests are now more crowded and susceptible to dangerous fires. Wildfires occur naturally and are an essential part of forest health. 

But historically, authorities have focused on fighting fires when they pose a danger to humans, not on managing forests before the fires start. While fighting fires to protect people is important, managing the forests with prescribed burning and mechanical thinning is also necessary, said Robyn Whitney, policy director for the National Association of State Foresters, a group that represents state fire officials. 

“We have suppressed fires for over 100 years, and combined with a lack of management, most forests are now intensely overstocked with fuel as a result,” Whitney said. “The answer is not just to put more resources into fighting wildfires. We have to get ahead of the curve and treat the fuel.”

Working together

Neguse, Curtis and other potential caucus members have worked individually — and sometimes collaborated — on bills meant to deal with various policies related to wildfires. By banding together, their efforts might carry more weight, Neguse said.

“The hope is a collective, joint effort to make those efforts even more powerful and salient at the federal level,” Neguse said.

Neguse said the framework for a working relationship came together earlier this year, when he and Curtis jointly asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prioritize firefighters battling wildfires for COVID-19 tests. Following the request, the agency tweaked its guidance for testing and gave higher priority to wildfire responders.

“That experience was instructive for our office and I think for Rep. Curtis’ office as well because it highlighted that working together and speaking with one voice … was powerful,” he said. 

Neguse could also have a new official position to enact federal forest policy. 

President-elect Joe Biden has selected U.S. Rep Debra A. Haaland, D-N.M., to head the Interior Department. Haaland chairs a House subcommittee on national parks, forestry and public lands. 

Neguse is a member of that panel and, though only beginning his second term, would be among the most senior Democrats who don’t already hold a subcommittee or committee chairmanship.

He declined to comment on the potential opening.