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

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

September 17, 2020

Washington, DC – Today, U.S. Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV), Ranking Member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) introduced 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.

“Wildfires are increasing in intensity, size and frequency; and the country is in need of a better approach to mitigate their devastating impacts.  We have already seen several catastrophic fires across the country this year, particularly in California where over three million acres have burned. We are seeing the results of not being proactive enough,” Ranking Member Manchin said. “As Ranking Member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, I will always work to ensure proper maintenance and conservation of our public lands, in part because it can saves lives and help reduce the losses that our country experiences from these natural disasters. That is why I helped to introduce this bill today. This legislation is a much-needed solution, and the tools and funding provided will ensure that we can better avoid these all-too-common, destructive wildfires.”

“The disastrous infernos in Oregon and across the West have leveled entire communities to ash, and left Oregonians choking on dangerous smoke. If this isn't a wakeup call for Congress to act on climate and invest more in smarter, science-based fire management, I don't know what is,” Senator Wyden said. “Good forest science is good climate science. Burning more when it's safe in the off seasons will save us a lot later by preventing catastrophe in the summer and fall.”

“Prescribed burns can improve the health of our forests and lands, mitigate wildfire risks, and allow for communities to plan for smoke events,” Senator 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.

A one-page summary of the bill can be found here.

A section-by-section summary of the bill can be found here.

Bill text can be found here.

National Association of Counties Executive Director Matthew Chase: “As counties work tirelessly with our federal, state and local partners to fight historic wildland fires, we welcome the introduction of the National Prescribed Fire Act. This legislation will improve federal public lands management and create a collaborative system to ensure that counties have access to necessary funding for urgent forest health activities. We thank Senators Manchin, Wyden, and Cantwell for sponsoring this legislation and call on Congress to pass it as swiftly as possible.”

Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology Executive Director Timothy Ingalsbee: “This legislation is long overdue but extremely timely. Prescribed fire is the safest, most effective, efficient, and economical tool for influencing wildfire behavior. Ask any firefighter on the firelines today and they will admit that they would much rather be lighting fires under the best weather conditions than fighting fires under the worst conditions.”

Defenders of Wildlife Director of Federal Lands Peter Nelson: “The wildfires raging up and down the West Coast are evidence that we must take a different approach to managing fire in the era of climate change. This legislation from Senators Manchin, Wyden, and Cantwell would give agencies the tools to use ‘good fire’ to make our forests, communities, watersheds and wildlife habitat more resilient.”

Vaagen Timbers Founder & CEO Russ Vaagen (Sustainable NW Board Member and past President of the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition): “The fires raging in the west remind us that we must act on our public lands. They have been neglected for far too long. This includes prescribed fire, but our forests need comprehensive forest restoration activity to get them back into a condition that can handle wildfire and other challenges that they face. Forests have become a carbon source, but with steps like the prescribed fire bill we can start the process of turning our forests back into carbon sinks.”

Iron Triangle LLC, Zach Williams: “The science is pretty clear that a combination of mechanical treatment and prescribed fire is necessary to get our forests into a more historical condition and sustain in the face of insects, disease and catastrophic wildfire. We need a bigger management and investment solution that includes support for resource management agencies, forest products businesses, other contractors, and the use of prescribed fire.” 

Intertribal Timber Council President Cody Desautel: “This legislation gives tribal land managers more flexibility to return fire to the land where needed, restoring landscape resiliency, and minimizing public risk from future fires.”

Earthjustice Senior Legislative Representative Blaine Miller-McFeeley: “We must immediately act to protect communities from wildfires like those currently devastating the West. In addition to aggressive action on climate change, this bill focuses on science based activities like increasing controlled burns, which can protect our communities in a sustainable manner, instead of handing more favors to big logging companies like the Trump administration and its allies in Congress want. We commend Senator Manchin, Senator Wyden, and Senator Cantwell for their work on this legislation.”

Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians Chairman Dan Courtney: “Managing with fire as a tool has been a critical part of the Cow Creek Umpqua Tribe’s management strategy since time immemorial.  Our ancestors saw the benefits of managing with fire years ago and we see the same benefits today. We are grateful for the leadership of Senator Manchin, Senator Cantwell and Senator Wyden as we all work to restore much needed balance to our forests.” 

Oregon State Senator Jeff Golden, Chair, Oregon Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources: “Southwest Oregon is reeling from the current wildfire tragedy and beginning to look for a viable path to recovery.  I’m thoroughly committed to doing everything possible to safeguard our residents and businesses, and to securing smart, effective federal support to better prepare for, manage, and live with wildfire. We know we can't do this alone, and Senator Manchin's legislation offers desperately-needed solutions and practical roadmaps to healthy landscapes and safer communities across our state. It’s our solemn responsibility to come together to meet these challenges, and I urge my colleagues to support this critically needed legislation.”

Oregon State Representative Pam Marsh: “This horrific fire season has been a brutal reminder of the need to stabilize our forests, and prescriptive burning is a critical tool in that work.  The proposed legislation from Senator Manchin, Senator Cantwell, and Senator Wyden will help us fund and implement programs that use prescriptive burning as a critical strategy to stabilize forests and protect nearby communities. Given the exacerbating impact of climate change on the landscape, prescriptive burning is key to the long term viability of our southern Oregon communities.”  

Western Environmental Law Center Staff Attorney Susan Jane M. Brown: “Scientists, practitioners, and indigenous peoples have been telling us for years that, somewhat counterintuitively, we need to fight fire with fire. WELC applauds Senator Manchin, Senator Wyden, and Senator Cantwell for this legislation recognizing that in order to restore our forests and protect communities, we must create incentives to increase the footprint of carefully managed fire on the landscape. More fire on the landscape, alone, will not solve the forest health crisis, but it is a necessary tool in our toolbox to help get us there.”

Sustainable Northwest Director of Government Affairs Dylan Kruse: “Oregon and the Western U.S. are suffering from the most devastating wildfire season on record, and this trend is showing no signs of reversing. We must act immediately to restore the health of our forests, protect our communities, and support firefighters on the ground. Senator Manchin, Senator Wyden, and Senator Cantwell’s bill provides a comprehensive set of scientifically sound and proven practices to reduce wildfire risk, expedite treatments, and help us live safely with wildfire in this new reality. Our communities and our forests cannot wait any longer for action. We urge Congress to pass and provide resources for this crucial and commonsense legislation as soon as possible.”  

The South Gifford Pinchot Collaborative’s Joshua Petit: “The South Gifford Pinchot Collaborative (SGPC) appreciates the efforts by Senators Manchin, Cantwell, and Wyden to enact the National Prescribed Fire Act of 2020 (NPFA). This bill clearly reflects the mission statement and guiding principles of our organization, and underscores a need for increased prescribed burning on federal lands in the western US. Prescribed burning makes our forests more healthy and resilient, protects private property and valued recreation resources, and promotes economic vitality within rural and resource-dependent communities. Prescribed burning and other wildfire mitigation strategies have never been so relevant and the time to allocate funding to these activities is now. We thank the Senators’ for their proactive efforts so future generations may benefit from, and enjoy, our cherished public lands!”

Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition Executive Director Karen Hardigg: “This bill provides a strategic framework and much needed resources to build on the prescribed fire work that has long been championed by rural community-based organizations. The West needs a new management paradigm for wildfire – one where we proactively build ecological and social resilience, rather than reactively managing annual crises. The Senators’ bill invests in all the right things, and recognizes the importance of collaborative, cross-boundary solutions.”

Wallowa Resources Executive Director Nils Christopherson: “There's broad consensus that the fire-adapted forests of the interior west need attention. The past history of forest management, and fire exclusion, has dramatically altered these forests.  Combined with climate change, current forest conditions face elevated fire risks across hundreds of millions of acres. Prescribed fire is one essential tool which all too often has been left out of the tool-box in restoration efforts. This bill creates important opportunities for local rural partners to work hand-in-hand with federal partners to respond with all of the necessary tools to the challenge. We need a collaborative prescribed fire effort and large cross-boundary incentive programs to drive this urgent work. This bill is a critical shift from reactive crisis management to the proactive, resilience-building work that our rural communities need.”

Lomakatsi Restoration Project Executive Director Marko Bey: “Controlled burning, combined with ecological thinning, is an essential tool for treating the millions of acres of overly-dense forest lands in urgent need of restoration across the West. A trusted technique proven by the latest science and millennia of successful land stewardship by indigenous peoples, carefully applied prescribed fire is a cost-effective and ecologically-sound way to reduce risks of severe wildfire and help protect communities while also enhancing wildlife habitat. The National Prescribed Fire Act would greatly increase the capacity of agencies, tribes, and nonprofit organizations—such as Lomakatsi—who are already applying controlled burns, while also encouraging new operations, training opportunities, and a cultural shift back to more proactive land stewardship for the mutual benefit of forests and communities.”

Southern Willamette Forest Collaborative Coordinator, Sarah Altemus-Pope, JD/MS Conflict Resolution: “We know that we need to increase the use of prescribed fire for forest health and to protect communities from catastrophic wildfires. The bill from Senator Manchin, Senator Wyden, and Senator Cantwell invests in restoring forests by creating a robust sector of skilled fire practitioners to reestablish fire cycles, remove hazardous fuels, and protect communities. We cannot do this work without a highly trained, year-round workforce, and I’m heartened to see such a comprehensive piece of legislation address this very pressing need.”

Watershed Research & Training Center Executive Director Nick Goulette: “The evidence is abundantly clear – we must seriously commit ourselves to a strategic and expanded use of prescribed fire to interrupt this now-annual occurrence of mega fire in the West. This bill -- from Senator Manchin, Wyden, and Cantwell -- is a critical step towards prioritizing and funding this work by focusing on supporting smart alliances between federal agencies, state and tribal governments, and local partners. Only through this heightened focus, and with more diverse hands pitching in, are we going to be able to scale prescribed fire where it matters most.” 

University of Oregon Research Professor and Senior Policy Advisor of Ecosystem Workforce Program Cassandra Moseley: “Science has made clear that we need to get more fire on the ground at the right place and time. This bill addresses workforce limitations and fosters interagency collaboration that research has shown are barriers to prescribed fire.”

Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center (Ashland, Ore.) Executive Director Michael Dotson: “Fire plays an integral role in the ecosystems of the west, and Indigenous Tribes used fire as a tool for millennia. With climate fires now burning up our towns, we desperately need to use fire as a tool in the cool, wet seasons to make our landscape less fire prone in the hot, dry summer months.”

Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative’s Terry Fairbanks: “Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative supports this bill because of its focus on returning fire to the landscape. This is  the most ecologically sound and cost-efficient forest management action that is desperately needed at this time. This bill recognizes practices, safeguards and incentives that are needed to make prescribed fire a common management tool. Successful integration of prescribed fire as a forest practice will protect communities and critical forest habitat, create jobs, and train and incorporate underrepresented groups into firefighting positions.”

The Longleaf Alliance President Carol Denhof: “The Longleaf Alliance is proud to work closely with Burner Bob® , A Cool Dude with a Hot Message®, to advocate for using Good Fires to prevent Bad Fires. By using prescribed fire to manage forests that have historically burned naturally at regular intervals, we are able to control the narrative and greatly reduce the risk of wildfire to our communities.”