House passes 48-bill wildfire-protection package

The House of Representatives narrowly passed legislation Friday boosting the pay of wildfire fighters and taking steps to improve fire resilience in western forests. 

The package combines nearly 50 western resiliency and wildfire-related bills, including a provision to increase federal wildland firefighters’ pay to match that of their state counterparts. It would also give force of law to the Forest Service’s current 10-year plan.

That plan, announced by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in January, instructs the Forest Service to increase the area it treats by about 20 million acres’ worth of national forests and grasslands, along with support for about 30 million acres of state, local, private and tribal lands. 

“The Wildfire Response and Drought Resiliency Act is a carefully crafted bill — that includes proposals from nearly fifty stand-alone pieces of legislation,” Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), one of the primary sponsors of the package, said at a press conference Thursday calling for passage of the measure.  

“Across America the impacts of climate change continue to worsen, and in this new normal historic droughts and record setting wildfires have become all too common. What once were wildfire seasons are now wildfire years,” Neguse added. “For the families across the country who have lost their homes due to these devastating wildfires and for the neighborhoods impacted by drought, we know that we need to apply a whole of government approach to […] supporting community recovery and bolstering environmental resiliency.” 

The measure comes after years of intensifying wildfires that have particularly devastated the western U.S. As of Thursday, more than 73 large blazes existed in the west, with over 3 million acres burned by large fires, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). The NIFC specifically blamed the current levels on a combination of unprecedented heat and unusually dry fuel. About 35,000 fires have been ignited by humans this year compared to more than 3,200 by lightning. 

The measure received one Republican vote in the closely-divided chamber. The House ultimately approved an amendment from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Rep. Connie Conway (R-Calif.) creating a grant program for improved water reliability in hard-hit communities.