How wildfires are because of Joe Neguse’s “primary profession”

ddespite clear directions from my GPS, I definitely felt I was in the wrong place when I rode the last mile to meet Colorado Representative Joe Neguse in March. We met in the town of Superior at the site of a recent devastating bushfire in his district, and yet the subsections I drove past seemed to be buzzing normally. Shoppers drove into a shopping center as parents drove children to school. But then, in the middle of an idyllic suburb, it appeared: a 30-acre subdivision in ruins. Every house in the neighborhood, once home to nearly 200 homes, burned to the ground in the Marshall Fire in December. Now a visitor can see the contours of where the houses used to stand and here and there the frame of a burned-out car, but there is not much more left.

At the entrance to the Sagamore subsection, Neguse was waiting. As I plodded through the wreckage to take it all in, Neguse, 38, jumped quickly from place to place, not quite happy but not gloomy either. For him, traveling fire wreckage has become a ritual, following a series of major fire events that shook this part of the state over the past three years. He’s done variations on the tour more times than his office can count—with journalists, residents and local officials, even Joe Biden. It’s only a small indication of how dealing with the effects of wildfires has become, in his words, his office’s “main profession.” “Because there is no fire season, this wildfire is year-round,” he says. “It’s every month, every week, every day.”

Neguse, a lawyer by training who previously oversaw Colorado’s consumer protection agency, seems suited for this bleak job. He likes to dig into details (he spoke for 16 minutes in response to one of my questions), and in the district I’ve seen him delve into the specifics of federal recovery programs for displaced residents — from insurance policies to EPA soil quality regulations — without breaking a sweat. Still, despite his attention to the details, he says lawmakers should pay attention to the bigger picture. “We have to fundamentally address the disease, not just the symptoms,” he says. “The disease is climate change.”

But there are only so many hours in a day. And the more time it takes Neguse and other elected officials to put out fires, the harder it gets to get to the root of the problem.

Neguse, who has? lived in Colorado since he was 6 is the first to admit that wildfires are nothing new to the state. He remembers hearing about wildfires as a kid, but in his memory they were nowhere near what the state is going through today. Since voters in this part of Neguse state first elected to Congress in 2018, wildfires have become an increasing challenge. Nine of the 20 largest fires in the state have since occurred and thousands of people have been displaced. Damage from the Marshall Fire alone was $1 billion. The district of Neguse, which encompasses the suburbs northwest of Denver and stretches all the way to the state’s northern border, has been hit particularly hard.

Neguse, who rose to national fame as a prosecutor in President Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial, says this reality has made tackling wildfires a non-stop job. “I knew that as a member of Congress I would enlist that wildfires would be something I would work on,” he told me. “But I certainly didn’t expect it to become the defining issue of my time in Congress.”

A house burns down after a fast-moving wildfire swept through the area in the Centennial Heights neighborhood of Louisville, Colorado on December 30, 2021.

Marc Picotty—Getty Images

Increasingly frequent and deadly wildfires are a terrifying reality in much of the US. Climate change has led to warmer temperatures and, in turn, drier forests, creating ideal conditions for fueling a fire. Meanwhile, people have been building closer and closer to the wilderness where wildfires generally start. The result is an unpredictable year-round fire season, with annual burned area increasing dramatically over the past three decades. More than 10 million acres were burned in 2020, an area more than twice the size of Connecticut; in the 1990s, just over 3 million hectares were burned in the average year. And while western states like Colorado may be hardest hit right now, scientists expect other places to follow, especially in the Southeast.

“I’m doing everything I can to sound the alarm,” Neguse says. “If a fire can eventually breach and destroy these suburban communities, it could happen in New Jersey, it could happen in Georgia, it could happen in Seattle — and I think that’s a paradigm shift.”

A tour of the site certainly helps him with that. Aside from the Rocky Mountains in the background, it felt like we could be anywhere in the US as we drove through Neguse’s district. In a few hours we bounce from one ruined subsection to another. Only one of them bordered on open land. The rest were doomed to failure by the whims of the wind, which sent flames seemingly randomly across the highway and neighborhoods. Some large buildings stand undisturbed. Others were completely destroyed – a new 120-room hotel is now little more than an elevator shaft and some steel beams.

Neguse says he’s making progress to get lawmakers across the political spectrum on board with meaningful wildfire policies. He managed to secure more than $5.75 billion in funding as part of last year’s bipartisan infrastructure bill to invest in forest management that will reduce the risk of wildfires in some high-risk areas. With a Republican counterpart from Utah, he launched a wildfire caucus in Congress.

But perhaps his most pressing initiatives are the work his office is doing to help residents and local officials navigate the maze of federal programs and help rebuild them. After my tour, Neguse stopped by a recreation center across the street from a burned-out neighborhood to meet up with displaced residents. One sounded angry. Another startled. But for the most part, the assembled residents had entered a new phase of reaction, driven less by emotion over the wildfire and more by frustration at their efforts to rebuild. Snapped supply chains meant a long wait for building materials. Due to an elongated housing stock, finding temporary housing was expensive. “It just makes everything more difficult,” Neguse said.

To really address the cause of the spike in wildfires, emissions would have to be reduced, but in the meantime, there are all those other fires that need to be extinguished. To that end, Neguse pledged to bring his voters’ challenges back to Washington. The next day, before he could leave town, another stumbling block stood in his way: He tested positive for COVID-19, and those burning concerns would have to wait a little longer.

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