Congress Pushes for Prescribed Burns as Dry Season Approaches
WASHINGTON — Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., unveiled legislation that would up the scale of controlled burns to mitigate the effects of severe wildfires nationwide.
The bill, entitled the “National Prescribed Fire Act of 2021,” would require the United States Forest Service and the Department of the Interior to increase the number of acres treated with controlled burns and allocate $300 million to execute the burns, according to its text. The legislation also includes provisions that require state air quality agencies to utilize current laws and regulations in order to authorize larger controlled burns and grant more flexibility to states in winter months to execute controlled burns.
“Climate change is making wildfires more frequent, more severe and more dangerous,” Feinstein said in a written statement. “Prescribed burns are one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce the hazardous fuels that can lead to catastrophic fires. Expanding the use of prescribed burns will lower the risk for large wildfires and save lives.”
In addition, the bill would establish an incentive program to provide funding to state, county and federal agencies for large-scale controlled burns and create a workforce development program at the Forest Service and DOI to develop, train and hire prescribed fire practitioners, among other measures.
The U.S. Forest Service’s California region is severely understaffed ahead of the state’s fire season. More than one-third of Forest Service fire engines in the region will likely be unable to operate seven days a week, according to Pew Trusts Stateline. Moreover, 16 of the 273 fire engines in the region could remain entirely unstaffed due to personnel shortages.
“In this era of climate crisis, the question is not ‘if an acre of forest will burn,’ it’s ‘when,’” Wyden said in a written statement. “The wildland firefighters I’ve spoken with would rather have that acre burn in the cooler, wetter months, with firefighters at the ready, rather than scrambling to fight a wildfire that ignites on the hottest, driest, windiest days of the year in the backyards of our rural neighbors.”
Wyden continued, “Wildfire season is starting earlier, lasting longer and destroying more of our treasured natural spaces, homes and businesses, not to mention killing people trapped in the blazes. Preventative measures, like targeted controlled fires to burn off hazardous fuels, is one key tool to lessen the hurt caused by these massive fires.”
The Forest Service projects a shortfall of 313 firefighters in the California region this year. Eight of 10 of the state’s largest wildfires on record occurred in the past decade, and the single largest on record was the August Complex fire that raged in Sept. 2020.
Last year in California, more than 4 million acres were burned along with over 10,000 structures, resulting in 33 deaths, according to California state statistics. Uncharacteristically warm weather coupled with prolonged drought conditions could result in even more fires throughout the state and elsewhere this summer and fall.
“Every year, wildfires that impact communities across the country continue to worsen,” Manchin said in a written statement. “They’re burning longer and they’re getting harder to control than they were just a few years ago, largely due to climate change, lack of forest management, and new housing developments in rural, fire-prone areas. That is why I am pleased to cosponsor this bill today.”
Manchin continued, “This legislation is a much-needed proactive solution, and the tools provided will ensure that we can better avoid these increasingly common, destructive wildfires. I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to ensure this legislation becomes law.”