Cantwell, Wyden, Manchin Introduce Legislation to Help Prevent Catastrophic Wildfires

New legislation would support pre-fire season controlled burns as an essential, science-based strategy for reducing hazardous fuels to mitigate the worst effects of wildfires

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) joined Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Ranking Member Joe Manchin (D-WV) to introduce legislation to help prevent the blistering and destructive infernos destroying homes, businesses and livelihoods and becoming all too common as the climate crisis grows.

The National Prescribed Fire Act of 2020 would support pre-fire season controlled burns as an essential, science-based strategy for reducing hazardous fuels to mitigate the worst effects of 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.

“Prescribed burns can improve the health of our forests and lands, mitigate wildfire risks, and allow for communities to plan for smoke events,” Cantwell said. “This bill will more than double funding for controlled burns that reduce hazardous, wildfire-starter fuels and makes it easier for federal and state officials to conduct burns by reducing burdensome requirements to burn outside the fire season. These tools will help reduce dangerous smoke and keep communities safe.” 

In 2018, the Forest Service determined that 234 million acres of forest are at a high risk of dangerous wildfires. Yet, controlled burns treated only 3 million acres annually during the last decade. Federal land managers should be equipped to get ahead of the problem, especially as the climate crisis worsens. Unfortunately, because vegetation grows continuously, the Forest Service will never be able to address the current hazardous fuels backlog at its current pace. Moreover, controlled burns, on average, emit one-fifth of the smoke of wildfires.

The National Prescribed Fire Act of 2020:

  • Establishes $300 million accounts for both the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior (DOI) to plan, prepare, and conduct controlled burns on federal, state, and private lands.
  • Requires the Forest Service and DOI to increase the number of acres treated with controlled burns.
  • Establishes a $10 million collaborative program, based on the successful Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, to implement controlled burns on county, state and private land at high risk of burning in a wildfire.
  • Establishes an incentive program to provide funding to state, county, and federal agencies for any large-scale controlled burn.
  • Establishes a workforce development program at the Forest Service and DOI to develop, train, and hire prescribed fire practitioners, and establishes employment programs for Tribes, veterans, women, and those formerly incarcerated.
  • Requires state air quality agencies to use current laws and regulations to allow larger controlled burns, and give states more flexibility in winter months to conduct controlled burns that reduce catastrophic smoke events in the summer.

Speaking on the Senate floor yesterday, Cantwell highlighted the importance of prescribed burns to reduce wildfire risks during the summer: “What we have come to learn now is that trying to do prescribed burns in the summer month when you have clearer air isn't really helping us now because we have large-scale fires that we are now having these very unhealthy smoke events that last for days and days… So what do we need to do now? Pass this proposal… to move prescribed burns to other parts of the year. Yes, may it create a few smoky days here or there in other parts of our year. Yes. But it will help us better fight these fires when it comes to these very hot, dry climates that we are now seeing with greater frequency in the Pacific Northwest and throughout the West.”

Senator Cantwell has been a congressional leader on wildfire management for years. Earlier this week, she wrote a bipartisan letter to President Trump requesting that he ask for international firefighting assistance to battle fires across the west. In December 2019, Cantwell worked with her colleagues to secure a $1.6 billion increase in funding for wildland management in December 2019. In 2018 she secured passage of language to fix the chronic failures in wildfire funding that had long plagued fire-prone communities across the west. Earlier this year, she pressed witnesses at a hearing about wildfire season preparations and rolling out new technologies. She has also repeatedly called on officials to make combating wildfires and protecting firefighters a top priority, including as preparations for the 2020 wildfire season continue amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

A one-page summary of the bill is available HERE and the full text is available HERE.