House approves bill to help West fight wildfires, drought

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WASHINGTON (TBEN) — The House on Friday approved broad legislation to help communities in the West cope with increasingly severe wildfires and droughts — fueled by climate change — that have caused billions of dollars in damage to homes and businesses in recent years.

The measure combines 49 separate bills and would increase firefighters’ wages and benefits; promoting resilience and mitigation projects for communities affected by climate change; protect watersheds; and make it easier for wildfire victims to get federal aid.

“Across America, the impacts of climate change continue to worsen, and in this new normal time, historic droughts and record-breaking wildfires have become all too common,” said Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., the bill’s chief co-sponsor. Colorado has been dealing with increasingly devastating wildfires in recent years, including last year’s Marshall fire that caused more than $513 million in damage and destroyed nearly 1,100 homes and buildings in Boulder County.

“What were once wildfire seasons are now wildfire years. For families across the country who have lost their homes as a result of these devastating wildfires and for the neighborhoods hit by drought, we know we need to adopt a government-wide approach to support community recovery and environmental resilience. “This is a bill that we think is timely for the West,” Neguse said.

The bill was passed, 218-199, as firefighters in California fought a blaze that forced the evacuation of thousands near Yosemite National Park and crews in North Texas tried to contain another blaze.

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It now goes to the Senate, where Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has sponsored a similar measure.

Both the House and Senate bills would permanently increase wages and benefits for federal wildfirefighters. President Joe Biden signed a measure last month that will give them a hefty raise over the next two years, a move that will affect more than 16,000 firefighters and brace much of the West for another difficult wildfire season.

Pay increases for the federal firefighters were included in last year’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill, but the money was held up as federal agencies studied recruiting and retention data to decide where to deliver them. The increase approved by Biden was retroactive to October 1, 2021 and will expire on September 30, 2023.

The House law would make the pay increases permanent and sets the minimum wage for federal wildfirefighters at $20 an hour, or nearly $42,000 a year. It also increases eligibility for pay for hazardous work and encourages mental health and other services for firefighters. The bill is named after smoke jumper Tim Hart, who died in a wildfire in New Mexico last year.

“The West is hot — hotter than ever — it’s dry and when it blows, the West is on fire,” said D-Wash Representative Kim Schrier. “And we see that every year because of climate change. That’s why this bill is so important.”

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the bill “a major victory for Californians — and for the country.” The Oak Fire, the largest wildfire so far this year, “ravages our state,” she said. “At the same time, countless of our communities regularly experience a lack of rainfall that can kill crops and fuel fires.”

The House law would provide “urgently needed resources” to fight fires and droughts, “which will only increase in frequency and intensity as a result of the climate crisis,” Pelosi said.

Republicans denounced the measure as “political messages,” noting that firefighters’ hourly wages have already risen above $20 in most cases. The agency says it would have to fire about 470 forest firefighters.

Rep. Arkansas’s Bruce Westerman, the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, called it “outrageous” that Democrats would try to enact provisions that could lead to firefighters being fired amid a devastating wildfire season.

“Democrats are finally waking up to the wildfire and drought crises, exacerbated by years of forest mismanagement and a lack of long-term water storage. Unfortunately, the Democrats’ proposals are anything but solutions,” Westerman said, accusing Democrats of not following the science. demonstrating that forests must be managed before fires start, and said Democrats are “failing to build the kind of long-term infrastructure needed to make communities resilient to drought,” while prioritizing “liberal talking points” about climate change .

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Neguse called the accusation outrageous, noting that many of the bills in the wildfire/drought legislation are Republican proposals.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the bill was important for the entire country — not just the West, where wildfires and droughts are a daily reality.

“We are one nation that is indivisible, and if one part of us is on fire, we all burn,” Hoyer said.

In addition to increasing firefighters’ salaries, the bill improves forest management projects intended to reduce hazardous fuels such as small trees and undergrowth that can make wildfires much more dangerous. It also establishes grant programs to help communities affected by air pollution from wildfires and improve watersheds damaged by wildfires.

Republicans called the thinning projects — which also include prescribed burns and vegetation removal — futile without renouncing lengthy environmental assessments that could delay forest treatment by years.

The White House said in a statement that it supports efforts to address climate change, wildfires and drought, but wants to “work with Congress to ensure that the many provisions in the (bill) avoid duplication with existing authorities and government efforts.”