The 416 Fire scorched 54,000 acres of land three years ago in La Plata County, and resulted in the temporary evacuation of more than 1,000 residents.
The wildfire remains one of Colorado’s largest to date. Now, Sen. Michael Bennet is seeking solutions for communities such as Durango that are recovering from wildfires, after securing $300 million in Emergency Watershed Protection Program funding in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
In partnership with Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, Bennet announced the recommendations of a report examining the EWP program – a federal emergency recovery program that assists local communities after natural disasters – after they requested it to be conducted by the Government Accountability Office in November 2019.
“Last year, Colorado saw three of the worst wildfires in our state’s history, and our communities are continuing to rebuild and recover,” Bennet wrote in a news release. “This report supports the challenges Western communities face in the aftermath of wildfire and illustrates improvements to the EWP program to help communities in Colorado and across the West mitigate post-fire damage and protect private property.”
The report focused on finding what challenges stand in the way of the EWP, what opportunities there are to expand projects, how stakeholders view the program and current eligibility requirements.
One of the main recommendations that the GAO report made is for the U.S. Department of Agriculture – the agency that runs the program – to assess the time limits for EWP projects, allowing them to find ways to minimize delays in getting money to sponsors.
Bennet fought those delays in the aftermath of the 416 Fire, along with then-governor John Hickenlooper, urging the federal government to approve the money as quickly as possible. Almost six months after fires began, wildfire recovery projects in La Plata, Huerfano, Costilla and Eagle counties received a grant of $20.2 million from the government.
The report also recommended the agency should develop guidelines to clarify roles and responsibilities for how and when EWP can be used on National Forest System lands.
The U.S. government is seeking to recover $25 million from the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad for starting the fire, though the railroad denies starting the fire.
Kelsey Carolan is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez and a senior graduating in December 2021 at American University in Washington, D.C.