Cantwell Commits to Big Changes in Federal Fire Policy, Hearing Firsthand of Devastation from the Reach and Wolverine Fires

Cantwell Convenes Roundtable in Wenatchee on Wildfires

August 18, 2015

Wenatchee, Wash. – Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, convened a roundtable in Wenatchee, Wash., to hear from first responders and community leaders about wildfires in the region. These perspectives will inform a bipartisan fire bill that Sen. Cantwell is writing.

Sen. Cantwell convened the roundtable to hear about current firefighting and emergency response needs in the region and to gather local perspectives to inform bipartisan wildfire legislation she is writing in cooperation with other members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“We are seeing asymmetrical challenges because of the dry conditions that are existing. Areas are extremely volatile because it’s so dry. We need to have a quicker response,” Sen. Cantwell said of combating wildfires.

During the roundtable, three major themes came out of the discussion that Sen. Cantwell plans to focus in on for her legislation.

Preparedness. Although fires are inevitable, the destruction of homes, ecosystems and lives is not inevitable. More federal money should be invested in preparedness. This has proven to be a strong return on investment; $1 in preparedness saves $1.60 in suppression costs.

“So over the next few days, we will need to look at fire-adaptive communities and how Washington communities are adapting to live with fire – before during and after. That’s one key response … and now we just need funding for it,” said Lloyd McGee, the Eastern Washington forest manager with The Nature Conservancy.  

“We need to not just focus on disaster response, but also to focus on long-term strategies. The technology is there to [better protect against wildfire risk], but we need planning resources,” said Steven Wright, general manager of the Chelan Public Utility District.

Rewarding Best Practices. Many communities are taking action to better protect themselves from fire damage. We need to reward and empower communities who are leading the charge on building safer communities and adapting their landscapes to wildfires. The federal government should better fund tools such as detailed risk maps, community wildfire protections plans and the FireWise program.

“Community wildfire protection plans are great, but there’s not a lot of funding. Communities can identify things as points of need, but it’s difficult to find a mechanism to accomplish that,” Annie Schmidt, director of the Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship Coalition, said.

Controlled Burns. Although we cannot control the fact that wildfires will break out, we can change when they start and under what conditions they burn. Controlled burns are when teams of professionals choose times to set fires when they will cause much less damage. These controlled burns reduce the impacts of natural fires, potentially saving lives and homes. Sen. Cantwell wants the federal government to be more proactive and pro-prevention in our federal fire policies, embracing activities such as controlled burns.

“Without a change to the Forest Service landscape, as far as thinning and reducing the fuel loading, or creating forest health and fire resiliency – we are still going to have the same fire behavior. We are not going to change fire behavior unless you take those actions,” said Ross Frank, rancher.

Currently, hundreds of thousands of acres are burning in the state of Washington and more than 7.1 million acres have burned nationwide in 2015. Sen. Cantwell believes that the changing nature of wildfires requires new solutions.

Earlier this year, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held an oversight hearing on the growing threat of wildfires. Scientists testified at the hearing that fires are getting worse, due to several new factors, including more extreme weather conditions, challenges in keeping our forests healthy and more development in fire-prone areas. As a result, more houses and businesses are being destroyed each year. This is devastating the lives of individual families and local economies. Sen. Cantwell is working to develop new solutions to address these changed circumstances.

In June 2015, Sen. Cantwell released a white paper on the issue of wildland fire management, previewing concepts that may be included in the yet-to-be-released Wildland Fire Management Act of 2015. Set to be released this fall, Sen. Cantwell is working on legislation with a bipartisan group of senators.

Next Thursday, August 27, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will convene a field hearing in Seattle to hear from additional experts on opportunities to improve federal wildland fire management. The hearing is open to the public and press.

Read the white paper.

Read Sen. Cantwell’s hearing statement from May 2015.