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Senator Feinstein Introduces Sweeping Legislation to Reduce Wildfire Risk to Communities, Boost Federal Disaster Aid

-Bills introduced in wake of devastating Southern California wildfires-

Washington, DC – U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) today introduced a series of bills to encourage state and local governments to improve fire-prevention efforts in areas prone to wildfires, to increase federal recovery aid to victims of major disasters, and to require states to create data bases to keep track of criminal arsonists.

“The risk of catastrophic wildfire for California is not going away. We are a tinder-dry state, we have extended droughts, and global warming is only making the risks greater. Wildfires are more frequent, and they burn hotter and with more intensity. So we must plan in advance to protect homes and communities from these massive fires. We must also do more to help victims of wildfires and other disasters. This legislative package is not a panacea. But it is a significant first step in improving fire safety and recovery aid,” Senator Feinstein said.

The legislative package introduced today by Senator Feinstein includes four bills:

  • Fire Safe Community Act: Establishes incentives for communities at risk of wildfires to adopt a new model Fire Safe ordinance that will set national standards in building codes, creation of “defensible space” around homes, and reduction of hazardous fuels. It also includes new federal grants to local communities, and increases federal reimbursement of firefighting costs to participating communities;
  • Mortgage and Rental Disaster Relief Act: Re-institutes a previously discontinued FEMA program to help qualified individuals displaced by major disasters make their mortgage payments;
  • Disaster Rebuilding Assistance Act: Boosts the maximum amount FEMA may provide to qualifying households to pay for temporary housing and home rebuilding costs. FEMA currently provides roughly $28,000 in this assistance. This bill would increase this to $50,000; and
  • Matching Arson Through Criminal History (MATCH) Act: Creates a national arson registry, requiring convicted arsonists to report where they live, work, and go to school. (Companion bill to H.R. 1759, introduced by Representatives Mary Bono, R-Palm Springs, and Adam Schiff, D-Pasadena.)

Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is co-sponsor of the Mortgage and Rental Disaster Relief Act, the Disaster Rebuilding Assistance Act, and the MATCH Act.

The bills introduced today are the latest in a series of actions taken by Senator Feinstein in the wake of the recent wildfires:

  • Senator Feinstein, along with Representatives Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) and Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), was instrumental in securing $500 million for emergency fire suppression, risk reduction, and recovery needs required by this year’s catastrophic fire season.
  • Senator Feinstein was also joined by Senator Boxer and several California members of the House of Representatives to ask top federal officials to streamline the process for replacing passports and other important immigration documents lost in the Southern California wildfires.

The recent wildfires, fueled by strong Santa Ana winds, swept through seven Southern California counties, leaving them disaster areas. The wildfires – which at one point spanned from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border – killed 10 people, injured 130, destroyed more than 2,000 homes, and inflicted damage estimated to exceed $2 billion.

The 2007 wildfires came four years after similar wildfires devastated Southern California, a region with strong population growth into the “wildland-urban interface.” The risk of massive losses in the future is high, with an estimated 5 million California homes now in areas known to be prone to wildfires, according to the California Department of Forestry.

“The damage caused by these wildfires is deep and lasting. We can never eliminate the risk of these fires. But I am committed to doing everything within my power to ensure that all available means are employed to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires, to fight them more effectively when they do break out, and to speed recovery to the victims, so that they might get back on their feet as quickly as possible,” Senator Feinstein said.

Following is a summary of the bills introduced by Senator Feinstein:

Fire Safe Community Act

Would establish new incentives for communities at risk of wildfire to improve fire-prevention efforts. Key components include:

  • Creating a model ordinance for communities at risk of fire located within the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI).  Bill will direct the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to create a model ordinance, in partnership with the U.S. Fire Administration, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management.  The purpose of this model ordinance is to provide a baseline for communities to become “fire safe,” including suggested water supply, construction materials and techniques, defensible space, vegetation management, and infrastructure standards;
  • Developing a new $25 million grant program to assist local communities in implementing the activities and policies of the NIST model ordinance.  To qualify for this grant program, communities must be located in a fire hazard area and take steps toward the implementation of the model ordinance.  These grants, administered by FEMA, can be used to enforce local ordinances and codes, develop incentive programs to improve code compliance, educate local planners on fire resistant planning, zoning and home construction, as well as train local fire departments on emerging technologies such as GIS fire mapping;
  • Providing grants to States on a 50/50 cost share basis to create or update fire hazard maps. Authorizes $15 million annually for States to develop or update statewide fire hazard maps which identify communities at risk of wildfire;
  • Establishing incentives for communities that decide to become more fire safe by changing the federal share of firefighting and emergency expenses reimbursed under FEMA’s Fire Management Assistance Grants. Currently states and local communities can have 75 percent of their firefighting and emergency service expenses reimbursed by the federal government, if FEMA determines that a fire threatened a significant number of homes and structures. Under this bill, communities in fire hazard areas that adopt the new model ordinance would be eligible to have 90 percent of their firefighting and emergency service expenses reimbursed under the Fire Management Assistance Grants program;
  • Authorizing the US Forest Service and the Department of the Interior to offer grants to local communities for fire safe practices.  The bill makes revisions to the authorization of the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior to allow them to administer grants to local communities for model ordinance compliance and for responsible zoning and fire protection strategies. The U.S. Forest Service would administer $35 million in fire-safe grants. The Department of the Interior would administer $15 million in these grants.

Mortgage and Rental Disaster Relief Act

Would address an important reality facing many disaster victims: Although they have lost their homes, in most cases they must still make mortgage or lease payments – on top of paying for temporary lodging. Key components include:

  • Making mortgage and rental assistance available to qualified individuals. Assistance would administered by FEMA, available for up to 18 months, in communities designated by the President as disaster areas;
  • Establishing qualification standards. Disaster victims must show they have suffered significant financial hardship, and are at imminent risk of foreclosure or eviction;
  • Setting income limits to ensure aid goes to those most in need. In high-cost states such as California, households with annual adjusted gross incomes of $100,000 or less could qualify. Households in lower-cost states could be eligible if their annual adjusted gross incomes do not exceed $75,000.

Disaster Rebuilding Assistance Act

Would provide assistance to disaster victims whose insurance policies do not provide enough money to cover rebuilding costs. California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner estimates that as many as 25 percent of California’s wildfire victims may be underinsured. Key component:

  • Increasing the amount of federal aid available for rebuilding and for temporary housing. It would specifically boost the assistance FEMA provides to qualified households to $50,000, up from roughly $28,000 today.

Managing Arson Through Criminal History (MATCH) Act

Would provide an important tool to law-enforcement and fire-safety officials by enabling them to effectively track arsonists. Key components include: 

  • Requiring each state to create a statewide registry.  Criminal arsonists are required to register and to keep registration up to date.  Failure to do so is accompanied by a mandatory state penalty.  Arsonists are required to annually verify their registration at least once a year.
  • Requiring criminal arsonists to provide their name, Social Security number, any applicable address, and pertinent vehicle information.  The jurisdiction is required to provide the text of the law violated, as well as a physical description, criminal history, photograph, photocopied I.D., and fingerprints of the arsonist.
  • Establishing length of time on registry based on number of offenses. Five years for one offense, ten years for two offenses, and lifetime for three or more offenses.
  • Requiring each jurisdiction to make information about the arsonist available on the Internet, readily accessible to approved law-enforcement agencies; Attorney General responsible for creating and maintaining National Arsonist Registry. The Attorney General is also responsible for developing and providing the software necessary for jurisdictions to comply with the law.
  • Creating Criminal Arsonist Management Assistance Program, to be established and implemented by Attorney General.  This program will allow the Attorney General to provide grants to jurisdictions to offset the costs of establishing and complying with these programs.  Grant applications must be submitted by the jurisdiction on an annual basis.  Jurisdictions are also eligible for bonus payments. The Attorney General will distribute such sums as necessary, authorized to be appropriated for each fiscal year from 2008-2014.