Fire responders urge Congress to improve disaster relief process for communities at risk

WASHINGTON – The federal government should review its emergency response systems to better help communities threatened by growing forest fire threats, state and local responders told members of Congress on Tuesday.

Wildfires across the United States have become larger, more intense, and more lasting during this century, in part because of changes in the global climate, creating an increased demand for federal assistance in response to the fires and d mitigation in fire prone areas.

“Climate change, dangerous accumulations of fuel, and increased development in the urban interface of wilderness areas have resulted in a significant increase in the catastrophic loss of life, property and ecosystems across the United States, most dramatically. in the western United States, ”Kacey KC, the Nevada State Forester Firewarden, told members of a House transportation and infrastructure subcommittee during a hearing.

The hearing comes as Western states recover from another massive wildfire season.

In 2021, more than 48,000 wildfires burned more than 6.5 million acres in the United States, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, a government group dedicated to fire management.

This has added to the significant wildfire toll over the past 15 years, as states often experience record years for wildfires. Since the NIFC began its modern forest fire registration in 1983, there have been 10 years where 8 million acres or more have burned. All these records have been held since 2004.

“All western states have experienced record wildfires in recent years. Drought conditions have resulted in forests ready to explode, whether it be a lightning bolt, a stray campfire spark, power lines interrupted by trees, or an arsonist match. Said Representative Dina Titus (D-Nev.), Who conducted the hearing. .

The Federal Emergency Management Agency – the federal government’s disaster response agency – issued five major disaster reports following fires last year. The agency also provided 33 Fire Management Assistance Grants, its primary tool to help states manage land in an attempt to mitigate wildfires before they start.

“It is essential for us to ensure that FEMA is able to help these communities prepare for, mitigate and recover from wildfires. And that can be very different from what is needed for floods or hurricanes, ”said Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.). “People need to get help without costly delays or mountains of paperwork. “

“Now is the time to learn”

State wildland fire recovery experts say FEMA help is increasingly needed, but many agency programs are slow to respond to immediacy of fire threats .

For example, KC, the Nevada fire ranger, said the state had received $ 8 million in FEMA forest fire mitigation grants, but had not yet been able to start any of the projects, in due to the “lengthy environmental application and review process”.

Casey Hatcher, assistant executive director for Butte County, Calif., Told the committee her county is counting on FEMA to recover from the devastating 2018 campfire, the deadliest wildfire in history from California. But the agency’s assistance to victims was slow and at times confusing.

“Now is the time to learn the lessons of recent wildfires and update the federal approach to disaster prevention, response and recovery in communities prone to wildfires,” said Hatcher to the subcommittee.

The campfire burned 14,000 homes, or nearly 14% of the county’s housing stock, but it took FEMA nine months to set up the first group housing site, according to Hatcher. Once finally arrived, FEMA mobile homes did not meet California building codes for fire safety, and therefore could not be placed in areas affected by the fire or sold to families as a housing solution. longer term.

“The process shouldn’t be that difficult for people to get the one-on-one help they need,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio, (D-Ore.).

Oregon State Emergency Management Agency director Andrew Phelps said there were some problems with the many layers of oversight built into FEMA programs in an attempt to protect against fraudulent claims.

“We need to get away from this notion that when we are trying to offer help to survivors, the first thing… is to prevent fraud, the second thing is to prevent an IG. [inspector general] investigation and the third thing we’re trying to do is help the survivors, ”Phelps said. “Helping survivors must be at the forefront of every decision made. “

Votes on forest fire bills

Several bills dealing with the federal response to wildfires are due for consideration this week by committees of Congress. The House transport and infrastructure committee will vote on two Wednesday.

The committee is expected to approve both measures, but they could face a bigger hurdle to making it onto the entire House or Senate calendar, where the partisan deadlock is delaying many legislative proposals.

The committee will consider the Resilient AMERICA Act, a far-reaching disaster relief bill. It includes provisions for federal assistance to communities to update building codes, install fire-resistant building materials, or create a more defensible space around properties at risk of forest fire. Titus, DeFazio, Webster and Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), Sponsored the bill.

Another bill put to a vote, the Forest Fire Recovery Act, would change a cost-sharing cap in one of FEMA’s fire programs.

This would allow FEMA to spend more on fire management assistance grants for some devastating fires. Currently, FEMA has a 75% cost-share cap for these grants, which help pay for field camp expenses, use and repair of equipment and other materials and supplies to combat the fires.

Representative Joe Neguse, D-Colo., Introduced the bill and has 38 co-sponsors, including four Republicans. Witnesses at the hearing said more flexibility in subsidies would help in some fire-prone areas.

Neguse also has another invoice under study that would increase the wages of federal forest firefighters.

A panel of the House natural resources committee will hear from wildland firefighters and federal officials at a hearing Wednesday to discuss the legislation. Neguse introduced the bill last week with a Republican co-sponsor, Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming.

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