FEMA official lauds local fire mitigation response
The regional director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Monday praised local efforts to minimize the flood danger associated with the Coal Seam Fire.
“It looks like there’s a good team effort here on what can be done to try to prevent further damage,” said David Maurstad, director of FEMA Region 8, which includes Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, and North and South Dakota.
Maurstad’s assessment came after visiting the Mitchell Creek area, which was hard hit by the fire. The fire began June 8 in South Canyon, and the same day roared toward Glenwood and up the Mitchell Creek drainage, destroying 29 homes.
Officials have feared that the canyon slopes, laid bare of vegetation, could flood in a rainfall, threatening many of the same homes that barely escaped the blaze.
At one point, authorities projected that as little as a tenth of an inch of rain could prompt damaging flooding and debris flows. But Maurstad said the laying of straw wattles and other flood prevention measures that have been undertaken seem to have reduced the danger.
“I think the measures that they’ve taken now, that a normal, soaking type rain won’t cause any difficulty. What they’re really concerned about is the hard, 30-minute type of rain,” he said.
Maurstad said his visit to Glenwood was aimed in part at thanking those who have been involved in dealing with its aftermath.
The fire reclamation and flood mitigation efforts have required cooperation by a host of different agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Natural Resource Conservation Service, and Garfield County, he said.
“They haven’t let any moss grow under their feet, so to speak. They’ve gotten on top of it very quickly,” he said.
Also Monday, Maurstad, joined by local FEMA spokesperson Gary Gleason, hiked part of the Storm King Trail, which leads to the site on Storm King Mountain where 14 firefighters died west of Glenwood Springs in 1994.
He said he wanted to see Storm King “to get a little bit of a sense of the difficulties that firefighters have faced and how the techniques of firefighting have changed since that tragedy.”
“I already had a great deal of admiration and respect for those folks but it took on an added dimension being able to have that hike and observe the challenges they faced trying to evacuate from that fire,” he said.
Maurstad on Monday also met in Grand Junction with smokejumpers who spoke with some relief that Colorado’s record fire season has moderated somewhat in its intensity, providing them with a bit of a breather.
“We’re still on high alert because the potential is there for a couple more big ones,” he said. “Hopefully the monsoons will hit and we’ll get good moisture. Maybe what we’ve gotten so far is it (for fires). That’s what we’re hoping for.”
FEMA has been involved in assisting firefighting efforts and local communities on several fronts. One is coverage of people’s underinsured and uninsured losses, for which they have about 30 days left to apply for assistance, he said.
FEMA also has helped stepped in to cover 75 percent of state and local costs for fighting fires. It has issued 16 such grants this year, compared to a high of three in Colorado in any previous year.
FEMA advanced $20 million to the state in June “just because we knew that they were going to have extraordinary costs,” Maurstad said.
With firefighting resources stretched think, FEMA also has helped pay for training for a couple of hundred additional wildland firefighters, said Maurstad. Most of those trained have been urban firefighters, because of they already have some firefighting expertise.
The Forest Service and BLM also have been involved in that training effort.
Lastly, FEMA has been providing grants to local fire departments to help with equipment, training and safety measures “to try to minimize potential for disaster” from fires, Maurstad said.
Nationwide this year, FEMA will distribute about 5,500 grants involving some $360 million in funding to local departments. Already, nine Colorado departments have received grants. Altogether, more than 19,500 departments nationwide have sought $2.2 billion in funding through the grant program.
Maurstad said Congress originally put $120 million into the program, and then provided approximately $240 million last December after President Bush and U.S. Fire Administration Administrator David Paulison lobbied to keep the program alive. Last week, Congress chipped in even more funding, he said.
Despite the dollars FEMA is doling out this season due to wildfires, Maurstad isn’t worried about the well running dry while the need is still there.
“Congress and the president have never failed to provide the necessary funding for either fire management assistance grants or presidentially declared disasters, so when the time comes Congress will provide the necessary funds,” he said.
About 2,100 businesses and individuals have applied statewide for FEMA assistance in connection with this year’s wildfires. Maurstad considers that a fairly low number, given the quantity and severity of the fires. He said it suggests that many already had good insurance protection, and also indicates how good a job firefighters did in protecting communities.
Maurstad was appointed by Bush to his position and began last October. He previously served as lieutenant governor in Nebraska, and prior to that served in the state legislature there, and earlier still as mayor of Beatrice, Neb.
His brief tenure with FEMA has been eventful. He joined the agency just after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and a few months before the Winter Games in Salt Lake City. He was involved in last-minute disaster preparations for the Games.
Fortunately, there were no major incidents at the Olympics, he said. But had there been, officials would have been prepared, Maurstad said, due to what he called “another good example of local, state, federal cooperation, and just cooperation amongst the federal family.”
As a newcomer to Colorado and his job, Maurstad remains somewhat wide-eyed about the state’s terrain and the challenges it presents.
“I’m just always amazed at the scope of the land and the mountains and the communities that are involved. There’s a lot to be managed out here, a lot of federal land. The scope of that always impresses me,” he said.
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