Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, who is in a race to hold onto his 2nd Congressional District Seat, and Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, who will retain his 3rd Congressional District seat, chat during an election night event for Republican candidates in at the Utah Association of Realtors building in Sandy on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News, File

3 Utah reps join new Bipartisan Wildfire Caucus in Washington

By Graham Dudley, | Posted - Feb. 18, 2021 at 10:13 a.m.

WASHINGTON — Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, announced this week he has co-founded a new congressional group that will advocate for wildfire prevention, relief and mitigation programs on Capitol Hill.

The Bipartisan Wildfire Caucus was formed by Curtis and Colorado Democrat Joe Neguse, and its inaugural crop of members will also include Utah Reps. Blake Moore and Chris Stewart.

Curtis and Neguse have already introduced wildfire-related legislation as part of the rollout, called the Wildfire Recovery Act. The bill is designed to "increase flexibility in the federal cost share" for wildfire recovery grants to communities.

"Many of Utah's most fire-prone communities face significant roadblocks when attempting to access disaster relief funds following a wildfire because FEMA lacks the flexibility that they need to quickly start recovery projects and guard against future disasters," Curtis said in a Tuesday news release. "I am proud to partner with my friend and Bipartisan Wildfire Caucus co-chair, Congressman Neguse, to introduce the Wildfire Recovery Act which will provide the needed flexibility to FEMA to get funding and recovery assistance on the ground as quickly as possible. I look forward to continuing to advance meaningful bipartisan wildfire-related legislation and am proud to have co-founded the Bipartisan Wildfire Caucus to do just that with a group of members who understand the impacts of wildfires back home and are equally committed to finding solutions."

Curtis and Neguse have worked on the issue together before. In 2019, they introduced legislation called the Study on Improving Lands Act to evaluate the effects of wildfire on carbon storage in the soil. Last year, the Wildfire and Community Health Response Act of 2020 was intended to support firefighters and mitigate "the impact of wildfires on vulnerable communities during the COVID-19 pandemic."

On Twitter, Moore said he is "proud" to join the new caucus. "Wildfire prevention and recovery are top priorities for the First District, and I am looking forward to being a part of this crucial effort," he wrote.

"Proud to be a member of the Bipartisan #WildfireCaucus where we will work together to prioritize wildfire prevention and recovery," Stewart tweeted.

The Bipartisan Wildfire Caucus will require that Republicans and Democrats join in equal numbers, much like the Problem Solvers Caucus that Curtis joined this year. While wildfire prevention may seem like a straightforward issue, last year's historically devastating fire season saw both sides pointing fingers. Republicans pointed to land management practices as a primary cause, and Democrats largely blamed the effects of climate change.

Officials even had to battle online misinformation that claimed the fires were being intentionally set by extremist groups.

Jason Curry, spokesman for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, said the biggest cause of worsened western fire seasons lately is actually drought.

"There are things related to climate, and there are things related to land management that also play into that," Curry said. "But drought really is the biggest driving factor. As we see throughout the state where there may be certain regions that undergo a really serious fire season — well, it's because of drought." With prolonged drought and diminished snowpack throughout Utah, Curry said the state is probably "going to have some serious fire issues this season."

Curry said he's happy to see the issue getting federal attention. "We welcome it when our federal delegation is involved with wildfire issues," he said. "We're glad that Congressman Curtis is making this effort, and we hope to see some really positive things out of it."

Last year produced more human-caused wildfires in Utah than any year on record. It was the most active fire season since at least 2012.

In addition to Curtis, Neguse, Stewart and Moore, the caucus's other announced members include Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.; Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz.; Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif.; Rep. Tom O'Halleran, D-Ariz.; Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore.; and Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho.

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