Lawmakers focus on the western U.S., but the problem is national in scope
WASHINGTON — As wildfires across the United States grow in size, intensity and duration each summer, members of Congress from the West are pushing for massive new investments in ecosystem management and wildfire mitigation.
House lawmakers called for more attention to wildfire management and support for wildland firefighters at a hearing Thursday before a House Natural Resources Committee panel. It was just the second hearing this year for the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, and Subcommittee Chairman Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) said that early attention exemplifies the importance of the issue.
“For those of us that live in the West, wildfires are one of the most immediate and obvious impacts of climate change. Wildfires today are nearly a year-round risk, burning larger areas at a higher intensity. This is only projected to increase as the climate continues to warm,” Neguse said.
Neguse has an ambitious plan to create a Civilian Climate Corps, dedicated to bolstering wildfire prevention and managing forests. The Biden administration included $10 billion for the jobs plan in its massive infrastructure proposal, the American Jobs Plan.
Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said climate change and the higher risk of wildfire from drought is changing the decades-old debate on whether to manage wildfire risk with forest thinning.
“One of the issues in this committee has been it was always an either-or proposition when it comes to dealing with fire: Either you cut your way out of the problem or the other issue is that it is a phenomenon that cannot be controlled,” Grijalva said. “Climate change has changed that whole debate entirely.”
Grijalva said the Biden administration’s goals to reduce carbon emissions and create jobs offer new opportunities to move on legislation to support forest management and firefighters.
“Having this hearing is important as we address the Biden administration’s American Jobs Plan and what resources we can use to match the need,” Grijalva told lawmakers at the virtual hearing.
Dry, flammable conditions
The issue is close to home for Neguse and other Westerners. The two largest wildfires in Colorado history both blazed through Neguse’s district last summer.
Wildfires provoked a year of devastating losses in 2020. More acres burned in Arizona in 2020 than the previous two years combined. Montana lost more structures to fire last year than it had since 2012.
Nevada had fewer fires than in recent summers but still issued air quality advisories due to California fires.
In total, wildfires burned about 10.3 million acres in the United States last year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, a government group dedicated to fire management. That was just a few thousand acres short of the record set in 2015. Read more