Originaly published in the Los Angeles Daily News
By Dianne Feinstein and Ken Pimlott
We know the only long-term solution to the West’s wildfire problem is a sustained campaign to combat global warming. But as Congress and the Biden administration continue to work on those solutions, we can’t ignore the threat already on our doorstep. We must consider short- and mid-term solutions to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires.
With the 2021 fire season ending, it’s a good time to consider the following five concrete actions Congress can take to make a difference sooner rather than later.
Reform forest management practices, most notably replacing small, scattered fuel-reduction projects with large-scale regional projects.
Today, the vast majority of forest management projects – efforts to remove hazardous fuel that feeds wildfires – tend to be quite small, generally a few hundred to a few thousand acres.
But the problem of hazardous fuel is massive, and it will take a rethinking of how we manage forests to cope with the millions of acres of at-risk forestland.
A Feinstein bill introduced in the Senate in May, the Wildfire Emergency Act, would start moving federal agencies in that direction. The bill includes $250 million for a new Forest Service program to conduct large-scale forest restoration projects. These projects are environmentally responsible – not clear-cutting – using the latest technologies and information.
This bill would fund up to 20 projects of at least 100,000 acres each, far larger than the typical projects we see now and large enough to make a real difference in the ability of wildfires to spread so quickly.
Notably, the bipartisan infrastructure bill that President Biden just signed into law includes $3.3 billion for wildfire risk reduction efforts, including funds to conduct large-scale forest restoration projects. This is a critical part of rethinking how we prevent wildfires from growing so large and protect our communities.
Underground power lines and insulate energy towers, improve the use of temporary power shut-offs and prioritize home and infrastructure hardening.
We know that temporarily cutting power during times of very high wind reduces the sparking of new wildfires. We also know doing so is extremely disruptive. The Wildfire Emergency Act authorizes $100 million to expand the use of microgrids to reduce affected areas by power shutoff. The infrastructure bill also includes $5 billion for burying power lines, installing fire-resistant technologies and expanding the use of microgrids.
We’ve seen the deadly results of faulty power lines and towers that can cause fires. The Wildfire Emergency Act would allow FEMA hazard mitigation funding to be used for the installation of fire-resistant wires and the undergrounding of wires. The infrastructure bill includes funding for these tasks, but we also need utility companies to move quickly to underground more wires.
We can also improve the safety of homes and other structures by expanding the Energy Department’s weatherization program. Retrofitting homes to make them more resilient to wildfire through the use of fire-resistant building materials and other methods is a critical step.
The infrastructure bill included $3.5 billion to help homeowners make these changes, a good start to achieving this goal. The Build Back Better Act also includes a Feinstein bill, the Disaster Mitigation and Tax Parity Act, to make state subsidies for home improvements in create wildfire and earthquake resilience exempt from income tax.
Raise salaries for federal firefighters and transition more positions from seasonal to permanent.
In California, state firefighters have a starting salary over $60,000 a year. By contrast, federal firefighters start around $30,000. This leads to rapid turnover, unfilled positions and low morale among this critical workforce.
Additionally, many of these federal positions are seasonal, not permanent, even though we know the fire season can now cover an entire calendar year. We also know it’s vital that we use what little reprieve we do get to conduct fire prevention work.
Aside from the basic unfairness and short-sightedness, the logic of this salary gap is also skewed: federal agencies are responsible for 58 percent of forestland in California, but have fewer firefighters who make less money.
The infrastructure bill President Biden signed includes $600 million to raise federal firefighter salaries by as much as $20,000, and convert 1,000 seasonal positions to permanent. The bill also requires federal agencies to create an occupational series for wildland firefighters that should help with recruitment efforts and boost morale.
Invest heavily in training to further professionalize our federal firefighting force and focus on training for safe, effective use of prescribed burns.
Firefighters are our first line of defense in the battle against wildfires. The Wildfire Emergency Act recognizes this need, authorizing a new workforce development program to assist in developing a career-training pipeline for forestry and fire management workers.
Similarly, the bill encourages additional study and training in safe, effective use of prescribed fire by establishing one or more Prescribed Fire Centers. These centers would coordinate research and training of foresters and forest managers in western states in the latest methods and innovations in controlled burns, a key strategy in reducing the likelihood of catastrophic fires and improving the health of forests.
Revamp the biomass industry and invest in innovative timber-use initiatives to expand the economy for small-diameter timber removal.
Responsibly reducing hazardous fuels in at-risk areas is just the first step. We also need to figure out what to do with wood that needs to be removed.
The Community Wood Facilities Assistance Act, a bipartisan bill introduced in both the Senate and the House, would make it easier to develop sustainable wood products and produce energy from biomass, specifically the small-diameter timber that needs to be removed from forest thinning projects.
The Build Back Better Act contains $775 million in grants for the construction of new facilities using small diameter wood from forest thinning projects. Building and expanding facilities that use wood from thinning projects will reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire, create rural jobs and reduce the cost of forest thinning projects.
We fully support robust actions to get climate change under control; that’s the only way we’ll ultimately decrease the rates of catastrophic wildfire. Until that happens, we need to direct our attention toward strategies that will have quicker results.
These actions we’ve outlined, combined with additional authority and substantial funding in the infrastructure bill and Build Back Better Act, should help protect communities in California and across the West from climate-driven wildfire.
Dianne Feinstein has served as the Senior United States Senator from California since 1992. Ken Pimlott served as chief of Cal Fire from 2011 to 2018.