Wildfires in 2018 left homeowners vulnerable to flooding and mudslides in Southwest Colorado – threats that exist to this day.
To help residents affected by those potential threats, and to do it in a timely manner that is likely to benefit property owners, Sen. Michael Bennet and other lawmakers in Congress introduced a bill last week that gives local government bodies like La Plata County the ability to reimburse homeowners for wildfire and disaster prevention and cleanup as soon as it is needed.
As it is now, it takes months, if not years, for paperwork to be completed and funding assistance to kick in.
Called the Making Access to Cleanup Happen (MATCH) Act, homeowners living below burn scars will receive a 75% reimbursement for mitigation infrastructure around their homes.
After the wildfires in 2018, a contract had to be finalized between La Plata County and the Natural Resources Conservation Service before homeowners could be reimbursed. Any work done by homeowners before the agreement was not eligible for reimbursement, said La Plata County Manager Chuck Stevens.
“We just thought that wasn’t right,” Stevens said.
When forest land burns, it changes the soil composition, creating “burn scars.” The ground is no longer capable of absorbing and holding water, and flash floods and mudslides are more common.
Flooding and mudslides damaged several homes in 2018 in the weeks and months after the 416 Fire, which burned more than 54,000 acres of mostly national forest lands.
Local actions to protect homeowners were stalled in 2018. That’s because La Plata County could not get funding from the Natural Resources Conservation Service until the paperwork was completed, according to current law.
La Plata County officials brought the issue to the Natural Resources Conservation Service headquarters in Washington, “but we were turned away,” Stevens said.
Bennet’s office had been tracking the burn scar issue as a result of several problems across the state.
“Communities often face significant hurdles accessing funding quickly,” Bennet said in a news release. “This bipartisan, bicameral bill will help relieve some of the burden on local project sponsors and improve wildfire recovery.”
Homeowners near burn scars in La Plata County can now be reimbursed by the federal government, since the agreement has been signed. But if this legislation had been in place in 2018, it would have benefited residents of La Plata County faster, Stevens said.
Wildfire mitigation and recovery going forwardHal Doughty, chief of Durango Fire Protection District, said the silver lining of the 2018 fires is residents are now more aware and more open to fire mitigation. Before the 2018 wildfires, people were reluctant to spend money to protect their houses.
“The fire could have gone a lot differently than it did, if it interfaced with 30 homes instead of one home at a time, and the next one could,” Doughty said.
Firefighters noticed the potential for runoff issues while the fire was burning. When the fire ended, heavy rains left little time to build up and prepare for flooding, Doughty said.
Mike Lester, state forester and director of the Colorado State Forest Service, said soil is not stable for at least three years after a catastrophic wildfire, and “year after year we are expecting more catastrophic wildfires.”
Investing in forests is important because without healthy forests, Colorado does not have clean air or the landscape that draws tourists to “our beautiful life in Southwest Colorado,” Lester told The Durango Herald.
Working with nature to conduct controlled fires during the right conditions will help prevent bigger wildfires in the future, Doughty said.
Concerned residents should go to Fire Adapted Colorado to learn more about how they can protect their homes and get the funding to do so, Doughty said.
Emily Hayes is a graduate student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.