Politics|Biden Consoles Residents in Fire-Ravaged Colorado
The president said the devastation caused by natural disasters rooted in climate change was “a blinking ‘code red’ for our nation.”
Jan. 7, 2022, 9:42 p.m. ET
WASHINGTON — President Biden flew to Colorado on Friday to console residents suffering from swift wildfires that destroyed nearly 1,000 homes, while pointing to the devastation as evidence of the urgent need to address natural disasters rooted in the global climate crisis.
Almost as soon as he arrived in the mountain-flanked town of Louisville, Mr. Biden assumed one of the more practiced roles of his presidency as he comforted families during his tour of charred homes, scorched trees and scalded cars, all blanketed in snow. The president’s visit came after catastrophic flames — fueled by powerful winds, parched grasses and unusually dry and warm conditions — quickly swept into the suburbs between Denver and Boulder last month.
“It’s as devastating as it looks on television,” Mr. Biden said. “As devastating as the many environmental crises I’ve seen in the last year.”
The president has made several other trips since taking office to empathize with Americans suffering disasters, including tornadoes in Kentucky, blackouts in Texas and a building collapse in Florida, often winning praise from local officials for his willingness to consistently deploy federal resources — a contrast from his predecessor. This week, Mr. Biden approved a disaster declaration in Boulder County, freeing up federal funds for temporary housing, home repairs and loans.
“It’s going to take a long time — I’m not going to kid you,” Mr. Biden said on Friday. “But we’re going to stay with you as long as it takes.”
Mr. Biden and the first lady, Jill Biden, met with firefighters and families, including one man who told them that “we lost everything.” Mr. Biden gave the man a hug. “We definitely need help,” the man’s son told Mr. Biden.
The president emphasized the urgent need to confront changing weather rooted in the climate crisis, calling the situation “a blinking ‘code red’ for our nation,” a term he has often used regarding the issue. As Mr. Biden arrived in the Harper Lake community in Louisville, protesters could be seen holding signs reading “code red.”
“We can’t ignore the reality that these fires are being supercharged,” he said.
But Mr. Biden’s climate agenda has stalled. He has so far failed to unite his party behind a sweeping social spending package that includes $555 billion in proposed climate spending.
The president specifically has not swayed Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, a centrist Democrat whose vote is crucial in the evenly divided Senate, to vote for the package, known as Build Back Better. The House passed the package in November.
Mr. Manchin did say this week that “there’s a lot of good things” in the climate investments in the legislation, although he added that talks with the White House on the entire package had hit a standstill. Mr. Manchin has said rising inflation is among the reasons for his reluctance to support the package.
The president’s $1 trillion infrastructure package, which passed with bipartisan support, does include $47 billion to help communities prepare for extreme floods, storms, droughts and fires. But climatologists and the president himself have said the much larger package is needed to mitigate future natural disasters.
“We are still in drought — it’s something our state is going to continue struggling with, so anytime we have these warm extremes with drought in our region, we are at greater risk for these types of events, and part of that is connected to climate change,” said Becky Bolinger, an assistant state climatologist at the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University.
Mr. Biden has pursued other ways to reduce the damage from fires, including increasing the number of air tankers and helicopters available and increasing pay for federal firefighters to $15 an hour.
There are limits to what the federal government can do to prevent wildfires. State and local governments have control over many measures to mitigate the damage, including reducing home construction in fire-prone areas.
The blaze in Colorado was a reminder of how many millions of Americans in the West are now on the front lines of devastation from a warming climate prone to long droughts and extreme wind conditions. It is not just mountain towns and cabins tucked into the forest threatened by wildfires, but suburban communities like Louisville and the neighboring town of Superior, where the fire ripped down cul-de-sacs and scorched a Target.
“There’s something so different about this,” said Lori Peek, director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder. “So many more people live in neighborhoods that look like this than what’s drawn into the mind’s eye when we think about a wildfire neighborhood.”
“Yesterday it was the suburban ring,” Dr. Peek said. “Tomorrow is it the urban core?”
Jack Healy contributed reporting.