The western United States is on fire — literally. Fueled partially by widespread drought, the frequency of devastating wildfires has risen to alarming amounts during the past decade. During the three-year period between 2011 and 2013, Arizona had its largest fire in history, New Mexico battled both the largest and most destructive fire in its history, and Colorado had the first and second most destructive fires in its history.
And now, with federal resources dwindling, the Rocky Mountain state plans to fight back. A new bipartisan proposal in Colorado intends to give the state Division of Fire Prevention and Control between $8 million and $12 million to invest in three firefighting helicopters this year and to lease as many as four large firefighting air-tankers next year.
If the bill passes, Colorado will join California as states providing its own high-powered firefighting resources. And it can’t come at a better time for Coloradans, as the state is feeling the effects of a seemingly unending drought. The Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains is embroiled in a three-year long drought, which is compounded by a infestation of tree-killing beetles. The beetles essentially turn the tall pines of the Rockies into kindling, which endangers the snow melt that flows down to the Colorado River, in turn providing water to tens of millions of people, according to the Washington Post.
“Colorado has four million acres of dead trees, mostly on the Western Slope, surrounding our watersheds. Those are watersheds that supply water to 40 million people in six lower basin states and the country of Mexico,” state Sen. Steve King (R), one of the bill’s lead sponsors along with Senate President Morgan Carroll (D), said in an interview with the Post. “The idea that we are one lightning strike, one arsonist’s match strike, one terrorist’s match strike away from a fire that could change the Western Slope of Colorado for generations to come is a huge concern for our state.”
And with greater firefighting capabilities comes the less-likely chance of that drastic scenario. King’s proposal would end the inverse relationship between the U.S. Forest Service’s tanker fleet and instances of forest fires. The fleet has dropped by three quarters over the last two decades, while wildfire statistics have jumped more than 50 percent during that time period, from 2.98 million burned acres every year in the 1980s to an average of 7.26 million acres burned per year between 2003 and 2012.
The number of charred acres will likely only grow. But with additional air-and-water power, Coloradans can at least get more help.