Cantwell Introduces Bill to Enhance National Weather Service Firefighting Tools

Fire Ready Nation Act of 2022 would codify NOAA agency’s role in forecasting, tracking and controlling wildfires

WASHINGTON, D.C. – This week, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) introduced new, bipartisan legislation to formalize and fund firefighting duties already performed by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), enhancing the agency’s capacity to help prevent and fight wildfires. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK) is co-sponsoring the bill.

The Fire Ready Nation Act of 2022 will establish a fire weather services program within NOAA – authorizing engagement in wildfire response activities and providing funding for science and technologies to forecast weather conditions that cause and spread wildfires.

“Washington state wildfires are growing more severe, burning hundreds of thousands of acres and threatening lives and property every year,” said Sen. Cantwell.  “With the 2022 fire season right around the corner, we need to maximize every tool available to prevent, track and fight wildfires. This bill will help our federal weather tracking agency – NOAA – deploy new technology that will boost computing power to improve wildfire forecasting and identify the impacts of changing weather conditions. It will test a new drone pilot program designed to gather critical fire information and survey post-fire damage – even at night – without endangering the lives of a pilot or crew members. And it will ensure NOAA has the resources to support our specially-trained forecasters serving alongside wildfire response teams.”

NOAA is already a major player in wildfire preparedness and response. However, the agency has no defined statutory authority or mandate for its wildfire services and activities. And while NOAA is a world leader in wildfire forecasting, they could improve their forecasts with better coordination and funding for new high-tech initiatives.

Here’s how NOAA helps now:

  • NOAA’s climate data and fire season forecasts help federal and state organizations plan for wildfire season.
  • When potential fire conditions are at their worst, NOAA’s National Weather Services (NWS) offices issue Fire Watch Warnings or Red Flag Warnings to help everyone get ready.
  • When fires do happen, NOAA deploys specially-trained forecasters called Incident Meteorologists (“IMETs”) to live and work on-site and help fire management teams determine where the fire might be going next. There are currently four qualified IMETs in Washington state.
  • NOAA’s existing testbed system was responsible for the 2020 launch of the High Resolution Rapid Refresh-Smoke model, which uses satellite observations and computer simulations to predict how smoke will move across the country and change air quality, visibility, temperature, and wind.

Here’s what The Fire Ready Nation Act of 2022 would do:

  • Establish a fire weather services program within NOAA, which would engage in wildfire response activities.
  • Fund the research and acquisition of science and technologies that forecast the weather conditions causing and spreading wildfires.
  • Create a Fire Weather Testbed that, following the model of existing NOAA testbeds, would develop, test, and deploy new technologies to address fire hazards, such as:
    • More computer processing power to improve wildfire forecasting models. With more computing power, NOAA can run more ensemble forecast systems that use multiple models and different initial conditions to better identify a possible range of fire outcomes. Incorporating more specific data would also provide more information about how fires change to due weather conditions, and how weather conditions are affected by fire.
    • A pilot program for Un-crewed Aerial Systems (UAS), a.k.a. drones. UAS can gather chemical information, fire radiation, atmospheric measurements in the boundary layer and near the fire, and survey for post-fire damage, without endangering the life of a pilot or crew members. UAS can also gather data cat night and can fly closer to fires than a crewed flight could.
  • Establish data management and data sharing standards for all NOAA data, and coordinate data collection across multiple federal agencies to improve and enhance fire weather data collection and sharing.
  • Codify the Incident Meteorologist Service, and address compensation limits on IMETs’ long deployments to help the specially-trained NWS forecasters who embed with fire teams for weeks at a time receive fairer compensation. In 2021 in the state of Washington, there were 12 missions for the three qualified IMETs the state had at the time. One IMET was deployed for 58 days total, another was deployed 56 days, and the third was deployed 40 days. The longest single mission was 18 days, the shortest mission was seven days. The average was 13 days per mission.

Senator Cantwell fought for major improvements to America’s wildfire preparedness and response in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The act, passed in August 2021, included funding for:

  • Wildfire Risk Reduction: Senator Cantwell helped secure this funding which provides $3.4 billion to both the Department of Interior (DOI) and the Department of Agriculture’s U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to support a variety of wildland fire fighting efforts, like funding for community wildfire defense grants, mechanical thinning, controlled burns, the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration program, and firefighting resources.
  • Hazardous Fuels: Reduction of hazardous fuels generally requires the removing surface and “ladder” fuels like brush, small trees, and other vegetation that when accumulated can cause fires to burn hotter and grow faster. $1.138 billion in total funding for hazardous fuel reduction has been included in the bill.
    • $35.6 million for DOI to carry out hazardous fuels reduction projects, including $10 million for Tribal Forestry Protection Act projects
    • $102.8 million for USFS to carry out hazardous fuels reduction projects, with $40 million for Tribal Forestry Protection Act projects
    • $1 billion for USFS to carry out State and Private Forestry grants for hazardous fuels work.
  • Burned Area Rehabilitation Programs: When fires burn so hot that they destroy a landscape beyond what can be naturally tolerated, some environments become unlikely to recover without human assistance. These programs repair or improve such landscapes.  $500 million in funding for these programs has been included.
    • $225 million over 5 years for DOI to carry out burned area rehabilitation
    • $225 million over 5 years for USFS to carry out burned area rehabilitation
  • NOAA Fire Weather: This investment will support the further expansion and development of NOAA’s fire weather activities through the upgrade and replacement of data collection systems, enhanced modeling for better forecasts and hazard prediction, and improved tools that support land management agencies and emergency managers. $100 million in funding has been included for this program.
  • NOAA High Performance Computing (HPC): This funding will allow NOAA to increase computing capacity for forecasts and drought. In the next five years, NOAA will require more than 32-times the processing power than it has today, in large part to meet the increasing need for climate-related modeling (such as drought and precipitation), prediction, and forecast needs which have a direct impact on American lives and property. This will directly benefit Washington and other western states that are experiencing more extreme drought conditions, which in turn produce worsening fire seasons. $80 million in funding has been included for this program.
  • NOAA Flood Mapping, Forecasting, and Water Modeling: These funds will support NOAA’s inland flood mapping program, and provide resources to improve forecasting and flood modeling capabilities which will help with planning and the protection of lives and property. Flooding is Washington state’s most costly and reoccurring natural disaster. In general, cleanup costs following a flood are estimated to cost as much as three times more than the investment necessary to mitigate and prevent flood damage. This funding supports the programs that allow for the planning and implementation of those prevention measures by communities and states. $492 million in funding has been included for this program.
  • Fire Detection and Monitoring Equipment: $10 million for DOI and the Forest Service to implement wildfire detection and real-time monitoring equipment in areas at risk of wildfire or post-burn areas.
  • Satellite Program for Fire Detection and Reporting: $20 million for DOI and the Forest Service to work with NOAA to create a program that uses the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite Program to rapidly detect and report wild fire starts.