We need sound policies to help withstand wildfire

Though wildfires can’t be extinguished completely, policies can be implemented that will help communities better prepare for and withstand wildfires and natural disasters. 

DAVID WILLIAMS and CHRIS BROWN | mtstandard.com | Jan 9, 2022

Wildfires continue to wreak havoc on the western United States with more than 54,350 wildfires burning 6,802,729 acres across the region in 2021. These fires, in addition to devastating the states, make affected areas more prone to future burning and other natural catastrophes. In December 2021, the West Wind wildfire burned 10,644 acres in Denton, Montana, destroying nearly 50 commercial and residential properties.

Though wildfires can’t be extinguished completely, policies can be implemented that will help communities better prepare for and withstand wildfires and natural disasters. SmarterSafer – a coalition of environmental, taxpayer, and insurance groups that promotes disaster resilience – recently outlined policy recommendations to help address the rising concerns related to wildfires and disaster mitigation. 

Investing in pre-disaster mitigation efforts at the local, state, and federal levels can reduce both the physical and fiscal costs from wildfires by not only protecting communities, but by also saving taxpayer dollars. In fact, $13 in damages will be saved for every $1 spent on mitigation. Additionally, there are a number of existing policy proposals that can be used to help us minimize the physical and financial stress wildfires have on different communities. 

One such proposal, by Senator Steve Daines (R-Mont.), is the “Forest Improvements through Research and Emergency Stewardship for Health Ecosystem Development and Sustainability (FIRESHEDS) Act,” which would allow governors to enter into joint agreements with land management agencies to designate areas at highest risk of wildfire as fire shed management areas. Additionally, it would expedite hazardous fuel reduction projects in fire shed management areas and prevent these high-priority projects from further delay by prohibiting court-issued injunctions. 

Similarly, back in April of 2021, Senators Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced a bipartisan bill, the “Wildland Firefighter Recognition Act,” to support wildland firefighters. The act would require the Office of Personnel Management to create a job series for wildland firefighters to help with recruitment efforts and boost morale.

Complimentary proposals like the Disaster Mitigation and Tax Parity Act of 2021, introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), provide tax incentives for some of those very investments and must be part of the equation. 

Beyond environmental investments, there are also opportunities to implement innovative mitigation strategies to ensure the infrastructure and housing is constructed to reduce risk. The Built to Last Act, introduced by Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), aims to do just that by ensuring building codes draw upon forward-looking climate information, including data on wildfires and other environmental trends. This proposal is a low-cost, high-reward policy that everyone should support. The bipartisan duo sponsoring the bill shows that everyone should support this, regardless of political affiliation.

These are just a few of the policies desperately needed to achieve a safer, more resilient society. As the West continues to deal with roaring wildfires, it is important to race against the clock and work together on a bipartisan basis to get ahead of natural disasters. Drawing attention to important policies that could ultimately change the course of how the nation responds and prepares for wildfires is crucial, especially in a year that has taken far too many homes and lives through destruction. 

The country cannot afford to wait until after the fire strikes: Risk mitigation and investments into resiliency will help us save homes, businesses, taxpayer dollars, and lives in Montana and across the country. For these reasons, it is critical for Congress to act now to move these important policies forward.