On January 31, 2023, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, in conjunction with Senators Feinstein, Daines, and Padilla, released the federal Wildfire Emergency Act, aimed at reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire in the western United States.
The bill provides up to $250 million to increase the pace and scale of forest restoration and wildfire resilience projects. These funds would allow large-scale forest restoration efforts on up to 20 landscapes of at least 100,000 acres each to achieve maximum benefit. The U.S. Forest Service would be granted pilot authority to bring together local stakeholders, conservationists, and private financing groups to leverage additional funds to implement these projects faster. Each project could receive up to $50 million in new financing under this pilot authority. The bill requires a report to Congress on the impact of this pilot authority and any barriers to making the authority permanent. It also establishes an energy resilience program at the Department of Energy to ensure that critical facilities remain active during wildfire disruptions and funds it at up to $100 million dollars. The bill also expands an existing Energy Department weatherization grant program to provide up to $13,000 to low-income households to make wildfire-hardening retrofits including ember-resistant roofs and gutters. The bill expedites the placement of wildfire detection equipment on the ground including sensors and cameras, as well as the use of space-based observation to identify new fires faster and help firefighters respond more effectively. It authorizes funding for programs to expand the forest conservation and wildland firefighting workforce and establishes a prescribed fire-training center in the West. Currently, the U.S. Forest Service operates just one prescribed fire training center in Florida. Finally, it authorizes grants to professional organizations, state agencies and academic institutions to support training the next generation of foresters and firefighters. These grants would provide for increased outreach to interested students as well as support training and internships for interested individuals and up to $50 million to support community grants of up to $50,000 for locally focused land stewardship and conservation.
Oregonians, particularly those of us in rural Oregon, have suffered through too many summers of catastrophic wildfire, toxic wildfire smoke, and watching our federal forests burn out of control. Senator Wyden’s bill is long overdue and much appreciated. We must act now in order to prevent future catastrophic wildfires. Since 2000, over forty percent of the Umpqua National Forest has burned. These trees will not create jobs or habitat. They are lost to our economy and our region, and they no longer sequester carbon. We appreciate Senator Wyden’s leadership and efforts to address catastrophic wildfire, toxic smoke, and lack of management on federal forests. The need for action is long past due, and a strong federal response is critical to ensure that we have thriving federal forest lands for generations to come.