ICYMI: Sen. Cantwell Spoke on Wildfire Funding in the Omnibus

We Can’t Simply Clearcut Large Swaths of Land – We Need to Define How We Do Hazardous Fuel Reduction in the Most Aggressive Way Possible

December 17, 2015

Washington, D.C. – Last night, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, went to the Senate Floor to discuss the 50-percent increase in wildfire funding included in the omnibus. She joined her colleague, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who chairs the committee and thanked the chairman for ensuring an increase in funding for this year’s wildfire suppression costs. Sen. Cantwell committed to continuing work on this issue in the new year.

Read her full statement below:

“Mr. President, responding to my colleague from Alaska—and I will make a longer statement in a second—I do want to thank her for her leadership, not just as chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, but also as the chairwoman of the Appropriations Interior subcommittee. Thank you for your detailing exactly why it is so important to have real money up front.

“You are right. For you and me and for many Western states, we have seen a change in fire habit, and we have seen probably two of the worst fire seasons our country has seen in many years and the fact is that this year’s season may trump that.

“It is very important that we give the agencies the tools to address this issue and that we give them the tools now—not a guessing game, not how much they might get or how much they might borrow but how much they have now. I think the 50-percent increase is a recognition of how dire the situation is and makes sure that these communities know that they get those resources.

“Yes, I wish to thank the chairwoman for allowing the committee to have a hearing. Senator Barrasso participated at a very critical moment and at a very sad moment because it was just days after we learned that we lost firefighters in the central part of our state.

“I wish to say that she has had a committee hearing. We have had committee hearings. My staff attended what was called the Wildfires and Us Summit. Many people in the central part of our state participated in that summit. Your question is – is this important to us? I think when you have a rain forest that catches on fire or you have parts of Alaska that have never burned that are up in smoke, you bet this is of critical importance to both our states and to many Western states. I thank you for the question and thank you for helping to get real resources on the table and a 50-percent increase over last year’s fire budget. Thank you.

“Mr. President, I thank my colleague Senator Murkowski for her leadership on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and I thank the senator for her discussion on fighting wildfires in the United States of America. I think she gave a great rendition. My hat is off to appropriators. I can tell you this: What we need is real money, and that is what she has provided.

“I thank her for that. I thank her partner on the subcommittee, Senator Udall from New Mexico. They worked together and had to provide a framework in which the omnibus reflects an appropriation that we will vote on later this week containing $1.6 billion for fire funding and fire suppression. That is $500 million more than last year. So I consider it a very good down payment.

“Congress has recognized that it is very important to provide funding for fire suppression and at sufficient levels so that agencies can address the issues of prevention and hazardous fuel reduction. This is something. It is critically important.

“I am pleased that this is a very large increase in firefighting accounts this year. Besides the 50-percent increase in fire suppression, as my colleague mentioned, there is $375 million in hazardous fuel reduction and new grants to local communities to decrease their fire hazards, additional fuel reduction projects such as controlled burns in our forests, and research on protecting homes during massive wildfires.

“This is critically important to my state, as they have implemented many programs over the last two seasons that they call ‘hasty response’ and fuel reduction, where they have been able to show that certain treatments have actually been able to save communities and neighborhoods that have done such treatment. The challenge becomes this: How do you educate the rest of the community, the rest of the state, on the vital importance of doing this fuel reduction? It is very important that we continue this.

“I thank again the chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the interior subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations on the fact that this is real money today, a 50-percent increase without the necessity for a future declaration of disaster, without a future appropriations request, without pitting states against each other on every disaster, but providing some predictability with this increase about how to move forward for the 2016 firefighting season.

“It is very important, as she mentioned, that we continue to focus on a variety of issues and resolutions: stopping the way that we continue to erode funds from other accounts while ensuring there are considerations of cost and oversight for large and expensive fires, integrating forest research to better prioritize where prevention money goes, increasing controlled burns on our federal lands, ensuring personnel and equipment can operate seamlessly across jurisdictions during wildfires, funding community preparedness and FireWise activities, funding risk mapping, providing technology on all large fires to ensure managers know in real time the location of the fires and of our  firefighters, and upgrading our air tanker system.

“We saw a lot of this, and we heard a lot about our air tanker system during our committee hearings and that there was much more we could be doing.

“As to establishing surge capacity, we heard a lot from our local communities that joined in the fight and are more than willing to join in this effort of helping us fight wildfires, but we need to have the capacity and the training.

“As to ensuring communications, nothing was more frustrating in some of these wildfires than to have no broadband communication and yet to be in charge of all the evacuation for the region without the ability to communicate to the people that needed to be evacuated. It is critically important that we have on-the-ground communications systems available on day one.

“Doing preventative treatments when risks are low is a particular issue for our state. We want to make sure that we have cooperation in working with other agencies. We don’t want to do fire treatments when we are in drought conditions and high temperatures and dry, dry conditions, but when there are less risks.

“We want to do mapping to clearly identify where the risks are, and we want to use technology for safety and effectiveness, such as GPS and other systems that can be used from the air, and modifying the individual assistance program. I say that because various communities that have been hardest hit by our fires have been in rural communities, but the way the definition works under our current law basically has prejudice against a community if it is not dense enough to meet the current requirement.

“I wish to say that the ranking member, myself, and probably even the Presiding Officer have very rural communities that can be devastated by fires. That means an entire community that may be based on recreation or outdoors or any kinds of outdoor activities could be so devastated and yet would be left without the resources, simply because they didn’t meet a population density number. To me, we need to address this because these communities are integral parts of our larger United States and the economic stability of many of our states.

“We want to continue to make these improvements in our system. As I said, the chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee allowed several hearings to take place, and we want to continue the efforts in working with our colleagues to make sure that we are moving forward on this issue in providing all the resources that we can.

“I wish to address one issue, and that is that we are not going to get this overall solution by simply clearcutting large swaths of land in which we haven’t made the right assessments. I say that because we have had so many issues in the state of Washington where dangerous erosion has taken place in those circumstances. But it is also clear that we all agree that massive fuel reduction does need to take place.

“I look forward to working with my colleague on that because there are many ways in which we can prevent and fight our national wildland fires. I look forward to working with Senator Murkowski, and I thank her for getting us real money—a 50-percent increase— that doesn’t require another declaration, doesn’t require a future event. It is there, and we can start using it.

“Let’s go to work with our colleagues in defining how we do hazardous fuel reduction in the most aggressive way possible, giving our communities better tools to fight these fires in the future, and working to make sure that we have the best equipment and the best resources for those individuals who are fighting those fires. I yield the floor.”

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