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KUNC is a member of Capitol Coverage, a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Fifteen public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.

'The Job I Signed Up For': Gov. Polis On Wildfire Response, Coping With Multiple Statewide Emergencies

Evacuees_VintageHotel_WinterPark.jpg
Courtesy/Governor's Office
Gov. Jared Polis talks to evacuees of the East Troublesome Fire at a hotel in Winter Park on Friday morning.

Gov. Jared Polis traveled around the state on Friday to get a firsthand look at the efforts that are underway to contain several record-breaking wildfires. Capitol Coverage reporter Scott Franz spoke to Polis over the phone after he left a meeting this morning with evacuees of the East Troublesome Fire in Grand County. That fire has grown rapidly — consuming 170,000 acres and forcing the evacuations of multiple communities including Grand Lake and Estes Park. Below are highlights of the interview.

Does Colorado have all the resources it needs to fight these record breaking wildfires that have upended the lives of so many people?

There’s no amount of resources or modern tech that can prevent high winds from spreading a fire from 19,000 to more than 100,000 acres over a 24-hour period. It’s frankly unprecedented that degree of spread. We haven’t seen that in Colorado and we hope we won’t see it again. But of course we want to make sure going forward we work with our federal partners to work on forest mitigation and management, building in natural barriers to prevent these kinds of fires from expanding so rapidly.

You recently talked to evacuees of the East Troublesome Fire. I’m wondering what the state is doing to help them, and what you see as the government’s role going forward.

I think a particular challenge at this time is applying the coronavirus safety lens to evacuation procedures. Maximizing use of hotel rooms where individuals can be with their family. And moving away from the traditional congregate shelters and high schools we’ve used in past fires. And also keeping the firefighters themselves safe. They have distributed camps this year rather than congregate camps to reduce the risk of firefighters themselves encountering the deadly virus, even as they put their lives at risk battling the deadly flames.

With record breaking wildfires and a worsening pandemic, you are currently overseeing the responses to two of the biggest crises the state has ever seen. How are you coping with this? Do you feel overwhelmed at all?

Well look, it’s the job I signed up for. We have a great team really working 24 hours a day, seven days a week at the emergency response center. My team stepping up, whether it’s fires, whether it’s coronavirus. We want to make sure we look at the best science, the best data to make the best informed decisions with the resources we have to help save lives and prevent further devastation.

What’s your message to Coloradans who might feel overwhelmed or anxious by experiencing so many emergencies happening at once?

I met one man who is an evacuee and he said that he suffers from anxiety, and he had to leave his meds at home, and emergency workers in Red Cross were able to get his emergency meds for anxiety. And you know what I said to him? I said, "You know what? I think even Coloradans who don't normally suffer from anxiety, many are right now and I think that's natural when you’re at risk of losing everything you have."

And when you have friends and neighbors displaced, and when you're worried about coronavirus on top of that. What can Colorado do to step up and help? You can go to coloradoresponds.org. It funds organizations that are verified that are helping on the ground.

I saw Red Cross volunteers and others helping with the evacuees and, you know, we need to really pull out what's best in all of us. Many of us might have friends under evacuation. Some have invited them to live with them temporarily. I've seen so many open their homes and their hearts to those who are impacted by the fires.

Once this fire season is over, do you think the state needs to do anything differently to mitigate the risks?

The challenge is most of these lands that are affecting Cameron Peak and East Troublesome are federal lands. We need to work with (our federal land agencies). Congressman Joe Neguse (D-Boulder) joined me today to talk about better strategy on better fire strategy and risk mitigation on federal lands. It may or may not require federal legislation.

How much are these fires costing Colorado? And what impact will they have on a budget that was already slashed because of the coronavirus pandemic?

Well, look, it’s about the effect it’s having on folks who are at risk at losing everything. There are thousands of evacuees. Many will be able to return home. And some will have lost everything they have. We’re going to make sure we do everything we can as a state to stand with those who have lost everything and build back our impacted communities, many of which rely on visitation and tourism.

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