Floor Speech

Date: Jan. 31, 2023
Location: Washington, DC


Mrs. FEINSTEIN. Madam President, I rise to speak in support of the Wildfire Emergency Act, bipartisan legislation that Senators Padilla, Daines, Wyden, and I are introducing today, to help address the threat of catastrophic wildfire throughout the West.

Wildfires have always been a part of life in California and other Western States, but climate change and drier forests have increased the threat of catastrophic wildfire. The new fire season is nearly year- round, and the wildfires themselves are more destructive as they spread faster and burn hotter.

The new reality of the wildfire threat requires transformative action to protect our forests and neighboring communities. Our bill would do just that, empowering Federal, State, and local land managers to make both our forests and infrastructure more resilient.

The most recent National Climate Assessment, conducted by leading scientists from the research community and across the Federal Government, found that the number of acres burned in the Western United States is double what would have burned without climate change.

My home State of California knows this all too well as it is the epicenter of this destructive phenomenon. The top three worst wildfire seasons in California were all in the last 5 years, including the largest single wildfire in California history in 2021. Since 2017, wildfires have burned more than 11 million acres, killed nearly 200 people, and destroyed more than 32,000 homes.

Worryingly, these wildfires are predicted to only grow worse as climate conditions continue to change, and the Federal Government has not yet adequately responded. Important investments in wildfire resilience were included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, which were enacted in the last Congress, but stakeholders are nearly unanimous in supporting additional policy changes to improve the pace and scale of wildfire resiliency treatments.

At the same time, the urgency of this crisis should not prompt Congress to vitiate important environmental safeguards. Throughout my time in the Senate, I have consistently championed the preservation and careful stewardship of our treasured forests, and this bill will be no different.

Our Wildfire Emergency Act is the result of a considered approach to the wildfire crisis and includes feedback from conservationists, public and private stakeholders, and the U.S. Forest Service.

First, it would provide the U.S. Forest Service with a pilot authority to leverage private financing options to increase the pace and scale of forest restoration projects. These projects would involve a collaborative approach to forest management to ensure that the forests are protected.

This conservation finance model would be a new way of implementing forest restoration work, but the principle at its core is that forests are vital to a healthy environment and populace. Forests provide shade and wind breaks, stabilize steep mountain slopes, and help purify our water. These benefits have tangible value, and the financing model we develop here would make those benefits plain for all to see.

In addition, the bill makes energy resilience a priority across the Federal Government. It would help develop and fund backup power for critical infrastructure like drinking water or hospitals, and put a renewed focus on wildfire detection and monitoring. As vulnerable as our forests are, it takes just one spark to ignite an entire mountain. The sooner our firefighters can detect and respond to these fires, the better our chances of preventing more communities from devastation.

In addition, the bill would provide grants to low-income households to make fire-resilient upgrades to their homes. Thanks to home insurance regulatory changes taking place in California, wildfire retrofits could also help lower insurance premiums and reduce the financial burden on rural homeowners. The bill would also make grants available to low-income communities to help involve them in planning and implementing forest restoration projects on the lands surrounding their homes.

Lastly, our bill recognizes that the forest management workforce is also in crisis. The U.S. Forest Service and Department of Interior have experience chronic staffing shortages in wildland firefighters for years. And even though the bipartisan infrastructure law and Inflation Reduction Act provided historic levels of funding for forest conservation work, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts an overall decline in the forest conservation workforce in the next 10 years.

To address these issues, our bill would create new funding sources for forest management education and firefighter training. It would also establish a prescribed fire training center in the Western United States, to train the next generation of firefighters and forestry technicians in the landscapes where their skills are most needed.

The simple reality is that wildfires will continue to happen in the West. They are an integral part of the West's ecology, even if climate change has exacerbated their scale and intensity. Our job must be to prepare for these wildfires to the extent we are able, to use the best available science to make our forests more resilient, and ensure that our communities remain safe.

That is why Senators Padilla, Daines, Wyden, and I have introduced this bill today, and I urge my colleagues to support and pass it as soon as possible.