Wildfire

Wildfire

Climate change has changed California’s traditional wildfire season to no longer be just a season. It’s a year-round threat in the West now. We must adapt and prepare for these larger, deadlier and more destructive fires.

Legislation

Emergency Wildfire Act 

Senator Feinstein authored the Emergency Wildfire Act, which would help fund wildfire mitigation projects, harden critical infrastructure against wildfires and bolster wildfire workforce development. The bill would: 

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.


Camp Fire (Paradise, California 2018)
 

Wildland Firefighter Fair Pay Act

Senator Feinstein introduced the Wildland Firefighter Fair Pay Act to eliminate an arbitrary overtime pay cap that limits the availability of federal firefighters later in the fire season. This pay cap is a huge obstacle for agencies looking to retain experienced firefighters. This 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.

Wildland Firefighter Recognition Act

Senator Feinstein is a cosponsor of a bipartisan bill introduced by Senator Daines (R-Mont.) that would require the Office of Personnel Management to create a distinct job and pay series for wildland firefighters. The pay scale used by agencies to pay firefighters needs to match the dangers these brave men and women face on the ground.

National Prescribed Fire Act

Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) introduced the National Prescribed Fire Act alongside Senators Feinstein, Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.). The bill would support pre-fire season controlled burns as an essential, science-based strategy for reducing hazardous fuels to mitigate the worst effects of severe wildfire. The legislation would increase the pace and scale of controlled burns, create a technically skilled preseason controlled burn workforce and give states more flexibility to regulate controlled burns in winter months to reduce catastrophic fires and dangerous smoke in the summer.

Bolstering firefighting capabilities

Hiring and retention of federal firefighters

More than half of the forests in California are on federal land. California invests significant resources to fight wildfires and the federal government needs to match that effort. We can have all the trucks and tankers in the world to fight fires, but without firefighters to man the lines, we’ll lose the battle. Which is why we must transition federal firefighters to a year-round firefighting force, similar to California’s firefighting agencies.

GAO report on hiring, retention of federal firefighters

In April 2021, Senator Feinstein led a bipartisan group of Western senators in requesting the Government Accountability Office to review the hiring and retention of federal firefighters at the five agencies responsible for wildland fire management. The GAO has agreed to conduct the review and will release a report to better inform Congress.

Year-round firefighting workforce

Federal wildland firefighters are currently seasonal positions, which makes hiring and retention more difficult. Senator Feinstein led more than 20 members of Congress in calling on the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior to reclassify these firefighters as permanent positions. In the face of longer fire seasons, year-round fire mitigation work is badly needed.

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. 

National Guard assistance

Senator Feinstein on May 18 questioned Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, at an Appropriations Committee hearing about what additional steps the National Guard may take to assist with wildfires. Video of the exchange is available here.

            Senator Feinstein: “I very much appreciate your highlighting the California National Guard’s very heroic efforts battling wildfires. Last year alone, 4 million acres in California burned, 10,000 structures were destroyed – 5,000 of them homes – 31 people lost their lives. So I am very interested in what the guard can do to be helpful to us. Do you have any suggestions that you might care to make.

            Gen. Hokanson: “When we look at the way we fight forest fires, we really kind of take an approach that we’ve learned from hurricanes. This March was the first time we actually had a wildland firefighting symposium where we brought all the states together that fight forest fires, along with the National Interagency Fire Center, to take really a different approach because it’s no longer a fire season, we start call it a fire year now.

            “What we’ve tried to do is identify – particularly in California and Washington this year where aviation units may be deploying – identifying states to make sure that they train their air crews so they can fill that gap in case there’s a need in California or any of the states that fight wildland firefighting.

            “We’re also looking at the ability – when we look at some of our Title 32 active and guard and reserve personnel, traditionally they are only on for 72 hours under immediate response authority. I’m working on a policy which I should have completed by the end of the month to give adjutants general the ability to retain some of those personnel in an emergency basis to help support firefighting because it’s absolutely critical our leaders are with them at all times.”

Resources