EPW Hearing Statement: S.___, the Wildfire Prevention and Mitigation Act

WASHINGTON – Today, the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held the hearing, “S. ____, the Wildfire Prevention and Mitigation Act of 2017.” Below is the opening statement of Ranking Member Tom Carper (D-Del.), as prepared for delivery:

Thank you, Chairman Barrasso. Since the last time we met to discuss wildfires – just one month ago – 21 major wildfires have ravaged the State of California. These fires have destroyed 8,400 homes and buildings, scorched more than 245,000 acres and tragically taken 42 lives. More than 11,000 firefighters from 18 states and Australia have worked, or are still working, to contain these fires. Challenging fire conditions persist throughout California, but now that the October fires are waning, cleanup begins. Chemicals present in burned-out homes and buildings may cause new health and human safety concerns. We need to act to address wildfire risk now more than ever, but we also need to be thoughtful and strategic in doing so. 

“During our September hearing, our colleagues and witnesses seemed to agree on several issues – ranging from the urgent need for federal funds to address fire to the possibility that narrowly tailored policy solutions should also be considered. Unfortunately, that bipartisan consensus is not reflected in the draft legislation we are considering today. The Wildfire Prevention and Mitigation Act does incorporate two bipartisan bills, but it also includes broad changes to the National Environmental Policy Act. I am concerned about the negative implications of these proposed reforms, which would be layered on top of existing, underutilized forest management authorities.

“This management-reform-only approach is not going to solve our nation’s wildfire problem. The draft bill does not acknowledge or address root causes for increasingly severe wildfire seasons, such as climate change or increased development near forest lands. It also fails to provide adequate funding resources to the Forest Service.

“I have mentioned the Forest Service’s funding challenges before, but the facts are worth reiterating. In 1995, only 16 percent of the Forest Service’s budget was dedicated to fire suppression. Since 2015, the Forest service has been spending more than half of its annual budget fighting fires. More than half. In order to meet fire suppression needs, the Forest Service borrows money from other important programs, including those focused on forest management and restoration. This practice, known as ‘fire borrowing,’ is not sustainable. We have to get ahead of this problem.  It’s getting worse – not better – and it prevents the agency from taking necessary actions to prevent fire.

“According to Secretary Perdue, firefighting activities will likely consume two-thirds of the Forest Service’s budget by 2021. When Secretary Perdue announced these projections at a bipartisan press event last month with our Senate colleagues, he asked Congress to focus on a permanent funding fix. He also reported that the Forest Service is cooperating well with local communities and does not necessarily need legislated management reforms.

“I look forward to hearing from our witnesses, who have travelled to share their expertise and counsel with us today. But Mr. Chairman, I do hope we will be able to refocus our efforts and develop a truly bipartisan approach to better prevent and address wildfires across our nation. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.”