U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., recently reintroduced legislation that would help prevent the blistering and destructive infernos from destroying homes, businesses and livelihoods and becoming more frequent as the climate crisis grows.
The National Prescribed Fire Act of 2021 would support pre-fire season controlled burns as an essential, science-based strategy for reducing hazardous fuels to mitigate the worst effects of severe 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.
“In this era of climate crisis, the question is not ‘if an acre of forest will burn,’ it's ‘when.’ The wildland firefighters I’ve spoken with would rather have that acre burn in the cooler, wetter months, with firefighters at the ready, rather than scrambling to fight a wildfire that ignites on the hottest, driest, windiest days of the year in the backyards of our rural neighbors,” Wyden said. “Wildfire season is starting earlier, lasting longer and destroying more of our treasured natural spaces, homes and businesses, not to mention killing people trapped in the blazes. Preventative measures, like targeted controlled fires to burn off hazardous fuels, is one key tool to lessen the hurt caused by these massive fires.”
“Every year, wildfires that impact communities across the country continue to worsen. They’re burning longer and they’re getting harder to control than they were just a few years ago, largely due to climate change, lack of forest management, and new housing developments in rural, fire-prone areas. That is why I am pleased to cosponsor this bill today. This legislation is a much-needed proactive solution, and the tools provided will ensure that we can better avoid these increasingly common, destructive wildfires. I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to ensure this legislation becomes law,” said Senator Manchin, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
“The National Prescribed Fire Act of 2021 will improve the health of our forests and lands, mitigate wildfire risks, and help make our communities safer. This bill more than doubles the funding for controlled burns to reduce hazardous wildfire fuels and addresses the cumbersome requirements to burn outside the fire season," said Cantwell.
“Climate change is making wildfires more frequent, more severe and more dangerous," said Feinstein. "Prescribed burns are one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce the hazardous fuels that can lead to catastrophic fires. Expanding the use of prescribed burns will lower the risk for large wildfires and save lives.”
In 2018, the Forest Service determined that 234 million acres of forest are at a high risk of dangerous wildfires. Yet, controlled burns treated barely 1 percent of that total – 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. Controlled burns are an important forest management tool used to prevent severe fires before they start. Moreover, controlled burns, on average, emit just one-fifth of the smoke of wildfires. In the face of the climate emergency, prescribed fire and other science-based forestry tools are more important than ever to protect our forests so they can continue to provide clean air, clean water and wildlife habitat.
The National Prescribed Fire Act of 2021:
Establishes $300 million accounts for both the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior 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.
U.S. Rep. Kim Schrier, D-Wash., introduced companion legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives and it was cosponsored by U.S. Reps. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and Kurt Schrader, D-Ore.
“With each successive year, wildfires have gotten worse throughout the West, destroying our communities and public lands. This year, there have already been more than 200 fires in Washington State, and wildfire season has only just begun,” said Schrier. “During the off-season, it is crucial that we work to mitigate the potential for future wildfire and improve forest health in order to protect our communities. That’s why I’m so proud to partner with Senator Wyden to introduce legislation to support pre-fire season controlled burns as an essential, science-based strategy for reducing hazardous fuels to mitigate the worst effects of wildfire.”