Saturday, October 1, 2022
Oct. 1, 2022

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While McKinney fire rages, wildfire legislation stalls. Here’s what feds can do immediately

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WASHINGTON — As the McKinney fire grew to become California’s largest of the season, leaving four people dead so far in Siskiyou County, members of Congress resigned that they could do nothing but hope:

Hope that legislative expenditures mitigate future blazes; hope that laws in place help recovery; hope that funds allocated to agencies in charge are put to use.

The best thing United States senators could do was spend weeks negotiating, and days voting, to pass the largest climate investment in the nation’s history. Returns on that $369 billion injection, to be spent over the next decade, could come too late.

California can apply for federal reimbursements for suppression on state land after damage is done. But when that wildfire burns federal land, as the McKinney fire does in Klamath National Forest, federal agencies are responsible for fighting it with local leaders. It might not qualify for that extra level of monetary aid, even as 58% of California’s forests are federally owned and seamlessly interspersed with the state’s 3%.

Following the onset of a wildfire, state leaders can request an assistance grant from the federal agency that handles emergencies to pay up to 75% of local costs for suppression, which Gov. Gavin Newsom did for the Oak Fire within a day. The Oak Fire has burned more than 19,200 acres in Mariposa County and is 92% contained, per Cal Fire. The governor can press the president to declare a major disaster, which triggers other federal aid that can help protect and recover individual property.

Newsom’s office is weighing whether the McKinney fire, which has burned more than 60,400 acres and is 40% contained, qualifies.

Members of Congress can connect aid to constituents affected by the fires. They can otherwise write letters to federal agencies and the White House in support of disaster response measures. But, “Congress does not have the authority to make that determination itself,” said Alexandra Lavy, the communications director for Rep. Doug LaMalfa, the Oroville Republican who represents Siskiyou County.

When it comes to wildfire legislation, party-line differences on climate change stall efforts.

Congress’ climate packages

The U.S. Senate extended its session before breaking for its regularly-scheduled month-long recess to pass a $433 billion climate, tax and health budget bill.

The so-called Inflation Reduction Act authorizes $5 billion for forest restoration, preservation and hazardous fuel reduction projects. It sets aside $4 billion in drought relief for the West, among other climate provisions. Senate Democrats estimate that the bill’s provisions will help lower greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030.

The U.S. House of Representatives will return from its own summer hiatus to vote on the package, where it will have an easier time in the Democrat-majority chamber.

Another wildfire package awaits Senate approval. A version of the House’s Wildfire Response and Drought Resiliency Act will struggle to meet the 60-vote threshold it needs to come to the Senate floor across a 50-50 party-line split: Unlike the budget bill, this one needs 60 votes to be considered.

The 49-bill wildfire and drought package passed the House almost exactly on party lines. While Republicans and Democrats fracture on addressing climate issues and federal oversight, this legislation sits.

“Every fire season for the past five years, people have lost homes and businesses; lives have been lost in my district. This crisis isn’t going away, so we have work to do to help our constituents get through this and be more resilient for what’s ahead,” Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, said in voting “yes” on the package that included his water infrastructure plan. Huffman’s district neighbors LaMalfa’s.

The mostly-Democratic package aims to create a federal water monitoring program, increase transparency on acquiring fire assistance grants and bolster firefighter pay. It would allocate funding to climate research.

Many of its provisions reinforce parts of the Forest Service’s new 10-year strategy to prevent wildfires.

“I’ll work with anyone to reduce fire risks and offered the author many options to meet in the middle,” LaMalfa said in voting “no.” “Instead, this bill will lock the public out of access to their public lands so we can watch it burn.”

The Republican farmer advocates for forest thinning and clearing dead, flammable brush around power lines. He has backed legislation to allow the Forest Service to start suppressing fires on federal lands within a day of ignition. He authored legislation to distinguish jobs and payment for firefighters on wildlands.

Forest Service plan

The U.S. Forest Service, which oversees federal lands such as Klamath National Forest under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, unveiled a 10-year wildfire strategy in January to treat forests with prescribed burns, thinning, pruning and removing dead plants that build up and act as kindling.

It echoes a tree-thinning project that started in Klamath National Forest two years ago. The U.S. Forest Service began designing the project to improve fire resiliency in about 11,000 acres of the forest near Yreka and Hawkinsville in 2010; it stalled due to wildfires, staffing issues and collaboration across stakeholders and is just over one-third finished. It was credited for saving the communities from a pair of small fires in 2020.

The new strategy announced in January would have the Forest Service manage up to an additional 50 million acres of land in the West; the agency estimates that it will treat four times the amount of land that it does now.

Forest Service leaders also hope to convince communities in high-risk areas to be more fire resilient through protective boundaries and eliminating brush that could fuel fires.

The plan outlines working with local, state, national and tribal leaders to set priorities in wildfire suppression, prevention and response on a hyper-local level. By the end of its first year, the Forest Service hopes to have a multi-pronged plan for future projects.

It’s unclear when those newly-formed plans would start. The first two years of their multi-billion-dollar strategy focuses on water access and preserving community assets that are vulnerable to fires.

Seed-funding for the strategy comes from the bipartisan infrastructure law that passed through Congress last fall, which provided nearly $3 billion toward land restoration and hazardous fuel reduction, the Forest Service estimates. Future funding must be allocated through other spending packages.

Last summer, Newsom and other lawmakers chastised the Forest Service for moving too slowly to combat fires. It led U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to visit California and say that the agency would do a better job fighting fires so long as it received more funding it required from Congress, noting the bipartisan infrastructure law.

The federal government had spent about $1.9 billion per year in wildfire management since 2016.

Federal grants

The eight largest wildfires in California history have occurred since 2017. Last year, almost 2.6 million acres burned, three people died and the Dixie Fire became California’s most expensive fire ever to fight. This year, more than 147,000 acres have burned.

Newsom declared states of emergency in both Mariposa and Siskiyou counties, opening the door for supplemental federal firefighting resources and ones from other states. Some evacuation orders were lifted in northwest parts of Siskiyou County after heavy rainfall doused the McKinney fire.

The state can request Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, grants to mitigate post-fire flooding, debris and mud flows that are a major concern with the storms.

This year, FEMA announced a series of bolstered funding for making homes that have been affected by fires more resilient against future ones.

California has been one of the most frequent recipients of Fire Management Assistance Grants from FEMA, which can cover up to 75% of the cost to suppress a fire. Whereas money can come before other types of disasters, wildfire aid comes as reimbursements.

“FEMA is good at what they do. They’ve gotten good at preparing for and responding to floods, tornadoes, hurricanes. Wildfires, not so much,” Sen. Alex Padilla told The Bee about legislation he introduced that would allow FEMA to pick up more of the tab for such disasters.

California senators on firefighting

Newsom met with California’s senators and Department of Defense officials during his trip to Washington D.C. last month to discuss new firefighting technology and strategies, such as securing seven planes to drop suppressants in 2023.

California’s senators have been at the forefront of pushing wildfire prevention and suppression policies. Last month, Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Padilla, Democrats, called on the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Interior to address severe federal firefighter shortages via the increased salaries that they fought for in a massive spending bill last year.

In their letter, they noted that the Forest Service has a shortage of about 1,200 firefighters, 500 of whom would be in California, and the Department of the Interior was down about 450, 150 of whom would be in California.

Through the Infrastructure and Jobs Investment Act that was signed into law last November, Congress authorized $600 million to both of the federal agencies to raise federal firefighter pay by up to $20,000 in hopes that it would help with recruitment and retention. It was recently put into motion.

“Federal firefighter shortages in past fire seasons required the diversion of other resources to combat these fires, putting at risk not only federally owned forests, but also state and private lands,” the senators wrote.

Last week, the Biden administration announced that the Foundation for California Community Colleges will work with community-based organizations and employers from across the state — including at Mountain Enterprises, PG&E and Arbor Works — to recruit and train workers in the fire and forestry industry. The federal grant for the Sacramento-based foundation comes through the American Rescue Plan’s Good Jobs Challenge.

On his first week in office, President Joe Biden signed executive orders committing to tackle climate initiatives. He called California wildfires a “ blinking code red “ in a trip to the state last fall.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Wednesday that the president has been receiving regular updates on the McKinney fire. She promoted federal grants to help communities become more fire resilient.

“I’ll say this to the folks in that region: Our hearts go out to the people who have been impacted by these extreme weather conditions,” she said,”including those who may have lost their homes or businesses to what has become California’s biggest fire so far this summer.”

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