As the western US continues to grapple with the issue of overstocked forests—literally millions of acres of dead, dying and diseased timber—the problem is now getting a second look from Washington.
In 2019, nearly 12 million acres of national forest land in California and over 6 million acres in Montana were at “high” or “very high” wildfire hazard potential—of which 3.1 million and 1.6 million acres, respectively, were within proximity to populated areas. The increase in development has put entire towns and communities at intensified levels of danger at a tremendous cost.
As a result, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.) have introduced a piece of bi-partisan legislation designed to help protect communities as they continue to expand in the western US. The Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act would implement new fire mitigation projects designed to, most importantly, improve forest health with more proactive management plans that will also create new markets for timber harvested from federal lands.
“Some of the most destructive wildfires in California history have burned in the last four years. Wildfires, once a seasonal threat, are now quickly becoming an almost yearlong danger and our response must acknowledge this new reality,” said Senator Feinstein. “This bill will help adapt forest management across California, Montana and the West to the long-term effects of climate. Creating a market for biomass will provide energy while reducing the fuel that helps fires spread quickly. Retrofitting homes with fire-resistant materials will make our communities more resilient. And helping critical facilities like hospitals become more energy-efficient will prepare them to cope with preventative power shutoffs. This bipartisan bill will help adapt at-risk forests and communities to our new reality when it comes to climate change and fighting wildfire and I’m proud to introduce it today.”
“I am very happy to join Senator Feinstein in introducing this strong, commonsense forest management legislation,” Senator Daines said. “This bill will speed up urgently needed projects to reduce wildfire risks, create good paying jobs in the forestry sector, and protect public health and safety. I look forward to working closely with Senator Feinstein to pass this legislation and send it to the President’s desk, because we must manage our forests so they don’t manage us.”
Per Senator Feinstein, the legislation would:
- Provide new authority for the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to work collaboratively with state partners in the West to implement wildfire mitigation projects. Projects are restricted to areas most in need of restorative forest management.
- Allow disaster mitigation and preparedness funding to be used to reduce the wildfire risk posed by utility lines and expedite permitting for the installation of wildfire detection equipment (such as sensors, cameras, and other relevant equipment) and expand the use of satellite data to assist wildfire response.
- Create a program to incentivize the collection of woody biomass and help expand processing facilities to make biomass more economically viable.
- Create a forest workforce development program to train a new generation of workers to help address wildfire and forest health.
- Require the establishment of a fire center in the Western United States to train new firefighters and forestry professionals on the beneficial uses of prescribed fires, a far more cost-effective method of stopping fires than mechanical thinning or firefighting.
- Lift the current export ban on unprocessed timber from federal lands in the west for trees that are dead or dying, or if there is no demand in the United States. California currently has nearly 150 million dead and dying trees on thousands of acres that are at risk of wildfire.
- Expand the Energy Department’s weatherization program to allow for the retrofit of homes to make them more resilient to wildfire through the use of fire-resistant building materials and other methods.
- Establish a new grant program to assist critical facilities like hospitals and police stations become more energy efficient and better adapted to function during power shutoffs. The new program would also provide funding for the expanded use of distributed energy infrastructure, including microgrids.
Read more about the Act in this section-by-section summary via Senator Daines.