Tuesday, January 26th, 2021

Senators call for greater federal assistance in battling western wildfires

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In the aftermath of wildfires that devastated wide swaths of land and communities, senators wrote to President Donald Trump last week requesting additional federal aid for wildfire response efforts and to assist recovery.

The senators requested quick increases to the number of fire personnel and equipment so as to build capacity for response, that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) use its powers to break down barriers to assistance for all affected by the fires — but for rural and disadvantaged areas in particular — and that FEMA be responsive to both governors’ and tribal leaders’ requests for adjusting cost-share requirements. Such requirements as is, they noted, can hamstring relief efforts in already over-extended states and tribes.

“We need to work together to fight these fires now, support communities in the aftermath, and later work to prevent future devastation by building more resilient communities, restoring healthy forests and altering the climate change-driven conditions that have led to this catastrophe,” the senators wrote. “In meeting the immediate challenge of the fires that are already burning, we appreciate how the federal government has responded so far: federal firefighters are risking their lives to save life and property, and disaster response officials are working day and night to assist families who have lost everything. But, we can do more.”

Such were the pleas of more than a dozen senators, many of them from the West, including: U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Patty Murray (D-WA), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Jon Tester (D-MT), Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Krysten Sinema (D-AZ), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Joe Manchin (D-WV), Gary Peters (D-MI) and Tom Udall (D-NM).

More specifically, the senators also called for help from foreign fire agencies and for the Forest Service and Department of Justice to work with the Bureaus of Prisons to locate recently incarcerated persons and offer them jobs in the fire service, providing them with jobs while filling gaps in firefighting needs. The Bureau of Land Management should seek help from Western ranchers and loggers experienced with wildfires and temporarily hire them, while the Forest Service and Department of the Interior quickly assemble a fleet of make-shift fire engines to supplement supplies. Other requests include providing more help to tribal efforts, greater flexibility in FEMA monetary assistance and the speeding of disaster declarations, among others.