Lawmakers advance bill to reduce wildfire impacts as climate change fuels more intense blazes

By Diana Leonard | Washington Post | November 17, 2021 at 3:52 p.m. EST

Legislation would supply $2 billion to federal agencies over five years to support better understanding and prediction of wildfires

The House Science, Space and Technology Committee advanced legislation Tuesday that aims to reduce losses from worsening wildfires in the United States.

The bill — the National Wildland Fire Risk Reduction Program Act — was introduced last month by representatives from California, Oregon and Colorado in the wake of destructive, climate-change-fueled fire seasons in Western states and harmful smoke that has stretched to the eastern shores of the country.

It directs substantial research funds — more than $2 billion over the next five years — to federal science agencies and lays out a national research agenda to better understand wildfires and reduce their impacts.

“Wildfires are becoming increasingly devastating, more and more parts of the nation are turning into high-risk fires zones, and the wildfire seasons are now nearly year-long,” sponsor Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said at a Tuesday committee hearing in which the bill was amended and ultimately approved to advance to the full House.ADVERTISING

“It is time for the federal government to start treating wildfires more like other major disasters, such as hurricanes, tornadoes and floods, by making sustained investments in wildfire science,” she said.

Described as a “whole-of-government” approach, the bill also establishes a committee to coordinate wildfire research nationally, represented by agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA, the U.S. Forest Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Geological Survey and others.

The program is modeled on similar efforts for other hazards, such as the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program, which coordinates earthquake research and policy at the national level.

NOAA is slated to receive the most funding and is tasked with a broad range of research goals, such as developing timely warnings and forecasts for potentially dangerous fires, creating a “Fire Weather Testbed” to improve fire weather products such as red-flag warnings, and building a database of historical wildfires and fire weather events for research purposes.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology will carry out research related to how fires ignite and spread through homes and communities, and develop building codes and retrofit standards for structures in high-risk fire zones.

Other agencies receiving research funds are NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, FEMA and the National Science Foundation.

The bill does not specifically cover firefighting and forest management, which are being addressed by other legislation and fall under the jurisdiction of other committees.

This was one of several points of contention on the committee, and it was unclear whether the bill would ultimately receive bipartisan support in a final House vote.

“Without including the actual firefighters and working to improve their decision-making capability and the ability of land managers to conduct actual forest management activities, this cannot be deemed a comprehensive fire bill,” Rep. Mike Garcia (R-Calif.) said.

The Dixie Fire ranked as the second-largest California wildfire on record. (David Swanson/Reuters)

At a hearing in June, scientists testified about the need for better observations, standardized data, more advanced technology and better coordination among science agencies.

Craig Clements, professor of meteorology and director of the Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center at San José State University, spoke to gaps in understanding about wildfire spread and called for a national fire weather research program.

“We don’t have the same levels of funding or dedicated resources for fire weather as we do for severe storms or hurricane research,” he said.

Fires are lasting longer into the night, and researchers may have found out why

Jessica McCarty, an assistant professor and director of the Geospatial Analysis Center at Miami University, emphasized that climate change means warmer temperatures nationwide, increasing drought and drying-out forests.

“This accelerates the likelihood of extreme fires, even in our eastern forests, like the 2016 Great Smoky Mountains fire near Gatlinburg, Tennessee, that burned over 17,000 acres and killed 14 people during an exceptional drought,” she said.

On Tuesday, as a fire in Colorado was forcing evacuations near Rocky Mountain National Park, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.), a co-sponsor of the bill, noted: “Close to half of my state’s population lives in or near places prone to wildfires, so we need to get serious about our approach to wildfires to protect people’s lives, their homes and our natural resources.”

In 2020, Colorado saw its three largest fires on record. This year, the state suffered mudslides related to those fires, along with hazardous air quality from wildfires burning in California and Oregon.