Washington—Senators Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla (both D-Calif.), Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Congressman Jimmy Panetta today introduced the Wildfire Emergency Act, a bill with the goal of reducing catastrophic wildfires in the West.
- Bill text is available here.
- A summary of the bill is available here.
- A section-by-section of the bill is available here.
“Western wildfires are becoming more frequent, more destructive and more deadly. This is happening because higher temperatures caused by climate change are leading to increased drought, more insect and disease damage and changing weather patterns. We must do more to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire and prepare for the fires we know are ahead of us,” said Senator Feinstein. “This bill uses a three-pronged approach: large-scale forest restoration projects, hardening critical infrastructure and increased training of key personnel. This bill complements other priorities like stabilizing the federal wildland firefighting workforce and retrofitting air tankers. We need a whole-of-government effort to battle catastrophic wildfire and address the growing challenge of climate change. This bill moves us in that direction.”
“As wildfire seasons turn into wildfire years, we must take proactive measures now to protect our communities,” said Congressman Panetta. “Our bicameral legislation will authorize much-needed funding to restore forests, support the creation of Prescribed Fire Centers, and spur workforce development programs that will train our next generation of forestry and fire management specialists. I’m proud to introduce this legislation with Senator Feinstein to protect precious federal lands, like the Los Padres, from the continued threat of wildfires.”
“Last year, wildfires burned 4.25 million acres of California – and we are potentially headed toward an even more destructive year with escalating drought conditions,” said Senator Padilla. “The state of California is increasing its wildfire prevention and mitigation budget, but with over half of forests in the state on federal land, the federal government needs to increase its mitigation efforts. That’s why I’m partnering with Senator Feinstein to bring more resources to save lives and protect communities. By improving forest management, shoring up critical energy infrastructure and training more forest managers, we can limit the devastation caused by extreme wildfires.”
“The wildfires ripping across the West are not your grandfather’s wildfires. They are burning bigger, hotter and made more dangerous by the climate crisis,” said Senator Wyden. “More needs to be done to protect communities in Oregon and across the West. With another wildfire season near, it’s time for the federal government to take big, bold action to keep communities safe from catastrophic wildfires.”
In addition to Representative Panetta, the House bill is cosponsored by Representatives John Garamendi, Salud Carbajal, Josh Harder, Jim Costa, Lou Correa and Mike Thompson (all D-Calif.).
What the Wildfire Emergency Act does
The Wildfire Emergency Act has three primary provisions:
1. Forest restoration projects
The bill authorizes $250 million to fund a new U.S. Forest Service program to conduct large-scale forest restoration projects. Currently, forest restoration projects are often narrowly focused, a few hundred to a few thousand acres. By funding up to 20 projects that are at least 100,000 acres each, the Forest Service will be able to conduct landscape-scale projects, providing the ability to analyze and implement restoration activities on a far larger scale than in the past.
These forest restoration projects, designed to reduce the potential for wildfires, include removing dead and dying trees, using controlled burns to reduce fuel for larger fires, clearing out invasive and non-native species and creating habitat better suited for wildlife and native species. The federal cost-share of each project is not to exceed 60 percent, which will require partnerships with state, local, water district and private funding sources. The projects must be consistent with all environmental laws; protect large, older trees; reflect the best science on restoring forests; and take climate change into account when planning actions.
2. Critical infrastructure and energy flexibility
One successful method of preventing large wildfires is temporarily cutting power during times of very high wind. Unfortunately, the effects are often extremely disruptive. The bill authorizes $100 million for a new grant program to protect critical infrastructure and allow for greater energy flexibility.
The grant program will help retrofit key structures like hospitals and police, fire and utility stations so they can function better without power. Funds can also be used to expand the use of distributed energy systems, including microgrids, which will reduce the area that power shutoffs affect.
The bill also expands the Energy Department’s weatherization program so that homes can be retrofitted to make them more resilient to wildfire through the use of fire-resistant building materials and other methods. Additionally, the bill will expedite the permitting process for installation of wildfire detection equipment, expand the use of satellite data to assist wildfire response and allow FEMA hazard mitigation funding to be used for the installation of fire-resistant wires and the undergrounding of wires.
3. Research, training and disadvantaged communities
The bill establishes one or more Prescribed Fire Centers to 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.
A new workforce development program will be authorized to assist in developing a career-training pipeline for forestry and fire management workers and establish a training center to teach foresters and fire managers in the latest methods and innovations in practices to reduce the likelihood of catastrophic fires and improve the health of forests.
An additional $50 million is authorized to help disadvantaged communities plan and collaborate on forest restoration, wildland-urban interface and tribal projects as well as projects increasing equitable access to environmental education and volunteer opportunities.
Broad support for Wildfire Emergency Act
Groups and agencies supporting the Wildfire Emergency Act include the California Natural Resources Agency, California Farm Bureau, Association of California Water Agencies, Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, Wilderness Society, Rural County Representatives of California, Sierra Forest Legacy, American Forests, Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, Yosemite Stanislaus Solutions, Idaho Conservation League, Placer County Water Agency, Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition, Forest Stewards Guild, Watershed Research and Training Center, Salmon Valley Stewardship, Sustainable Northwest, Western Environmental Law Center, Blue Forest Conservation, Quantified Ventures, Sempra Energy, Edison International and PG&E Corporation.
California Farm Bureau President Jamie Johansson: “This bill assumes double importance, coming as it does during a severe drought year for California. Well-managed forests and watersheds contribute to water supplies – and lack of appropriate management leaves our forests even more prone to devastating wildfires during drought. Farm Bureau appreciates Senator Feinstein’s ongoing commitment to reduce fire risk through increasing the pace and scale of forest restoration.”
Association of California Water Agencies Executive Director Dave Eggerton: “The Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) supports the introduction of the Wildfire Emergency Act and appreciates Senator Feinstein’s continued leadership on this issue. The protection and management of forested headwaters will only benefit water users and increase water supply reliability and quality, while also preventing catastrophic wildfires.”
Nature Conservancy California Executive Director Mike Sweeney: “The Wildfire Emergency Act of 2021 shows that we can accelerate forest restoration and reduce the risk of wildfires in ways that are consistent with ecological principles and existing law. The Act will direct urgently needed funding to significantly increase the pace and scale of practices like prescribed burns and forest thinning while also supporting the workforce and community capacity needed for this work. We applaud Senator Feinstein for her leadership in advancing landscape-scale forest restoration that will reduce the risk of high-severity wildfire.”
Sierra Club Deputy Director of Legislative and Administrative Advocacy Kirin Kennedy: “This wildfire season is predicted to be one of the worst we’ve ever seen and we must invest in community resilience so that our families, friends and neighbors can protect themselves from the devastation of wildfires. The Sierra Club applauds Senator Feinstein’s Wildfire Emergency Act which meets the urgency of the moment by investing in fire-smart communities - a key step towards ensuring the health of our planet for decades to come. Through this legislation, we will be able to combat the climate crisis and work towards safer communities and a livable planet for everyone.”
Defenders of Wildlife Director of Federal Lands Peter Nelson: “America’s forests are on the frontlines of the climate crisis. To sustain the myriad values forests provide – including clean water, carbon storage and wildlife habitat – investment in conservation and restoration is imperative. We commend Senators Feinstein, Wyden and Padilla for introducing legislation to create capacity for science-based restoration and wildfire risk reduction strategies, including use of prescribed fire to build and sustain resiliency within forested landscapes.”
Wilderness Society California Deputy Director Daniel Rossman: “Our national forests are vital to the health of communities and the planet, and restoring the health of our forests is a critical step to reducing severe wildfires that threaten public safety. We applaud Senator Feinstein for championing a science-based approach to ensuring healthy forests are part of the climate solution.”
Rural County Representatives of California Senior Regulatory Affairs Advocate Staci Heaton: “RCRC has continually advocated for a commonsense approach toward reducing the effects and severity of wildfires that have plagued California over the past decade. This bill would work to accomplish this objective by encouraging landscape scale projects to reduce wildfire risk in federal forests, involving the non-profit sector in addressing forest health and resilience, building a more robust forest workforce, creating opportunities for disadvantaged communities to benefit from land stewardship activities, and creating more resilient communities and energy grids.”
Other recent actions concerning wildfire
Hiring, retaining federal firefighters
In April, Feinstein led a bipartisan group of Western senators calling on the GAO to review the hiring and retention of federal firefighters at the five agencies responsible for wildland fire management. On May 7, the GAO agreed to conduct the review, a move that will help bolster congressional actions in the coming months.
“We can have all the trucks and tankers and airplanes in the world to fight fires, but without firefighters to man the lines, we’ll lose the battle,” Feinstein said. We must do more to support these individuals who put their lives on the line to save others, which includes paying them fairly and incentivizing them to remain in the ranks of wildland firefighters.”
Fair pay for federal firefighters
In January, Senator Feinstein introduced the Wildland Firefighter Fair Pay Act. The bill would eliminate arbitrary overtime pay caps that limit the availability of federal firefighters later in the fire season. The bill has bipartisan support and has been endorsed by the International Association of Fire Chiefs, National Federation of Federal Employees, Federal Wildland Fire Services Association, and Grassroots Wildland Firefighters.
Senator Feinstein is also a cosponsor of a bill introduced in April by Senator Steve Daines (R-Mont.) that would require the Office of Personnel Management to create a distinct wildland firefighter job and pay series that takes into account the hazardous nature and physical hardship of the job.
“The overtime pay cap for federal wildland firefighters is a huge obstacle for agencies looking to retain experienced firefighters. Eliminating the cap would ensure these individuals are fairly paid and help stabilize the firefighting services within key federal agencies,” Feinstein said. “We also need to ensure the pay scale used by agencies matches the dangers that these brave men and women confront on the ground.”
Transitioning from seasonal to year-round workforce
In March, Senator Feinstein led more than 20 members of Congress in calling on USDA and the Interior Department to reclassify federal firefighters as permanent positions. Currently these jobs are considered seasonal, even in the face of longer fire seasons and the critical need for fire mitigation work like the removal of dead trees.
“Federal wildland firefighters are currently seasonal positions, which can make hiring and retaining personnel more difficult,” Feinstein said. “We need to transition to a year-round firefighting force, similar to California’s firefighting agencies, which will make it easier to hire and retain a well-trained workforce.”
Transfer of C-130 air tankers
In 2018, a provision authored by Senator Feinstein to transfer seven C-130 air tankers to Cal Fire to help fight wildfires was signed into law as part of that year’s defense authorization bill.
Since then, Senator Feinstein has worked with the Air Force and Lockheed Martin to expedite the modifications that will allow the transfers to be completed. The Air Force is currently working to install a Retardant Delivery System in the aircraft and to reinforce the wing boxes to ensure the planes are capable of delivering fire retardant and carrying out necessary fire maneuvers.
“Adding additional C-130 tankers will help Cal Fire quickly and safely put out wildfires, protecting firefighters and the communities they’re protecting. Getting the rest of these plans transferred as soon as possible is a top priority,” Feinstein said.