How Wildfires Due to Joe Neguse’s “Main Job”

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Ddespite the clear direction of the GPS, I felt certain I was in the wrong place when I drove the last mile to meet Colorado Representative Joe Neguse in March. We met in the town of Superior at the site of a devastating wildfire in the district, but the sections I passed looked as usual. People shop at a shopping complex while their parents drive their children to school. But then, in the middle of an idyllic suburbia, it appears: a 30-acre section in ruins. Every single house in the neighborhood, once home to nearly 200 homes, burned to the ground in the Marshall Fire in December. Now visitors can see the lines where the houses once stood and the burning car frames here, but none of them are still there.

Waiting at the entrance to the Sagamore subdivision stood Neguse. As I moved ploddingly through the wreckage to take it all in, Neguse, 38, jumped briskly from one place to another, not quite cheery but not morose either. For him, touring fire wreckage has become a ritual, after a string of major fire events rocked this part of the country over the past three years. He made more variations on the tour than an office could count — with journalists, residents, and local officials, even with Joe Biden. It’s just one small indicator of how tackling the fallout wildfire has become, in a word, the “main occupation” of his office. “Because there’s no fire season, this fire works every year,” he said. “It’s every month, every week, every day.”

Neguse, a lawyer with training who previously oversaw Colorado’s consumer protection agencies, appears suited to this grim job. He likes to go over the details (he speaks for 16 minutes in response to one of my questions), and in the district I see him dive into federal rehabilitation programs for displaced residents – from insurance policies to EPA soil quality rules – without a sweat. However, despite paying attention to the details, he said lawmakers should pay attention to the bigger picture. “We have to deal with the disease, not just the symptoms,” he said. “The disease is climate change.”

But there are only a few hours in the day. And the more time Neguse and other elected officials have to throw fire, the more challenging it becomes to solve the problem.

Neguse, that has been alive in Colorado since he was 6, it was the first to admit wildfires were anything new to the state. He recalls hearing about forest fires when he was a child, but in his recollection he does not come close to what the country is going through now. Since voters in that part of the country first voted Neguse into Congress in 2018, wildfires have been an increasing challenge. Nine of the 20 largest fires in the country have occurred since now, and thousands of people have been displaced. The damage from the Marshall Fire only totaled $ 1 billion. The Neguse District, which includes the suburbs northwest of Denver and as far as the northern border of the state, has been hit hard.

Neguse, who is of national prominence as a prosecutor in President Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial, said that fact makes tackling wildfires a non -stop task. “I knew it would be a member of Congress if wildfires were to be carried out,” he said. “But I certainly don’t expect that it’s going to be a time-determining issue in Congress.”

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A home is burning after a wildfire that raged rapidly in the area in the Centennial Heights neighborhood of Louisville, Colorado, on December 30, 2021.

Marc Piscotty-Getty Images

Frequent and deadly wildfires are a horrific fact in many U.S. Climate changes resulting in warmer temperatures and, in turn, drier forests, creating conditions conducive to burning fires. Meanwhile, humans are getting closer and closer to the desert where fires commonly start. The result is an unpredictable fire season throughout the year with annual acres burned increasing dramatically over the past three decades. More than 10 million acres will be burned in 2020, an area more than twice the size of Connecticut; in the 1990s the average year saw just over 3 million acres burned. And while Western states like Colorado may be the hardest to do right now, scientists expect other places to do so, especially in the Southeast.

“I did everything I could to sound the alarm,” Neguse said. “If a fire could eventually tear up and destroy this suburban community, it could happen in New Jersey, it could happen in Georgia, it could happen in Seattle — and I think this is a paradigm shift.”

The on-the-ground tour certainly helped him make the case. Save for the Rocky Mountains in the background, driving through the Neguse district felt like we could have been anywhere in the U.S. In a few short hours, we bounced from one wildfire-razed subdivision to another. Only one of them borders open land. The rest were questioned by the confusing winds, which brought fire on the highway and into the neighborhood, appearing randomly. Some of the large buildings stood undisturbed. Others have destroyed the all-new 120-room hotel now little more than an elevator shaft and some steel beams.

Neguse said he would make lawmakers on the political spectrum with a useful fire policy. He successfully pushed for more than $ 5.75 billion in funding as part of a bipartisan infrastructure law last year to invest in forest management that would reduce fire risk in some high-risk zones. With a Republican partner from Utah, he launched a congressional wildfire caucus.

But the most important initiative may be the work done by the office to help residents and local officials navigate federal programs and support while trying to rebuild. After the tour, Neguse stopped by a recreation center across the street from the burning section to meet with displaced residents. That one sounds angry. Another cried. But in general, the gathered residents have entered a new stage of response, defined less by emotions over fire and more frustrated with efforts to rebuild. A snarled supply chain means waiting a long time for construction materials. A stretched housing stock means finding a temporary place to stay is expensive. “It just makes everything harder,” Neguse said.

To really address the cause of the spike in wildfires means cutting emissions, but in the meantime there are all other fires that need to be put out. To that end, Neguse promised to return the constituency challenge to Washington. The next morning, before he could leave town, there was another setback: he tested positive for COVID-19, and the burning concern had to wait longer.

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Write to Justin Worland ing [email protected]