The issue: Worsening wildfires threaten Colorado. 

What we think: We need urgent action on climate change. 

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America’s enduring problems didn’t pause for the pandemic — we just looked away. Two horrific mass shootings in a single week, for example, have brought gun violence back into sharp focus. And as summer unfolds, we’ll realize that even if climate change wasn’t front of mind in 2020, it didn’t miss a beat.

Under the Trump administration, climate science became a partisan issue, with the former president suggesting that Californians could rake their forests to prevent wildfires, and dismissing the role of climate change in natural disasters. Now, with the benefit of a new administration and the promise of a post-pandemic world, Colorado needs to take the bull by the horns on environmental action and disaster prevention. 

While we were indoors, 2020 brought Colorado its worst wildfire season ever — with blazes covering 625,356 acres and suppression costs exceeding $266 million. Fighting the Cameron Peak fire alone cost more than $132 million. The rapidly intensifying fire season in Colorado is part of a larger problem of worsening fire destruction in the West, fueled by climate change and outdated forest management plans, Emma Neuberger writes for CNBC. Per the U.S. Department of Agriculture, wildfire season in the West is now 78 days longer than it was in the 1970s. Take a look at Colorado’s 10 largest wildfires, and you’ll see 7 occurred since 2012 — three of those in 2020 — and all of the state’s 20 largest wildfires occurred since 2000.

As the scale of the problem becomes clear, there’s a renewed focus on real, price tag-attached solutions. At the federal level, Democratic Rep. Joe Neguse of Colorado wants wildfire prevention included in President Joe Biden’s infrastructure package. Neguse, elected chair of the U.S. House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands in February, introduced a bill that would create a 21st Century Conservation Corps, directing more than $40 billion to protect public lands and hire a new generation of forest managers. 

“There are a number of programs within the federal government that have been woefully underfunded for decades,” Neguse tells CPR News. “That has, in the view of many, caused the proliferation and pervasiveness of the wildfires our state has experienced.” Neguse’s proposals include about $6 billion for the U.S. Forest Service and about $6 billion for the National Park Service maintenance accounts, as well as $150 million for the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, which works with communities to promote forest health and reduce the risk of megafires.

At the state level, the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment is taking feedback until April 5 on the Draft Climate Equity Framework, which aims to ensure Colorado’s response to climate change is guided by principles of racial equity and economic justice. On its website, CDPHE notes that “Coloradans are already feeling the impacts of climate change — from hotter, drier summers to record-breaking fire seasons, to floods so destructive, it takes communities years to fully recover. People of color, Colorado’s sovereign Tribes, lower-income individuals, historically underrepresented groups ... are often most severely impacted. The time for bold and fast-activating strategies to reduce greenhouse gases is now.”

These measures are a work in progress, but they deserve our attention, involvement and support. There’s urgent work to be done. Colorado Springs can’t afford another Black Forest or Waldo Canyon fire. Colorado can’t afford another Cameron Peak Fire. We can’t sit idly by to see if 2021’s wildfires obliterate previous records — or what might happen if we look away again.