US senator for Washington state urges Forest Service to increase firefighter numbers and resources ahead of 2023 wildfire season; Sen. Cantwell notes Central Washington's US$4B agriculture economy is at risk from above-normal fire potential

Sample article from our Government & Public Policy

WASHINGTON , April 19, 2023 (press release) –

The National Interagency Fire Center outlook shows areas in Central Washington “are forecast to have above normal significant fire potential,” putting the region’s over $4 billion ag economy at risk

Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) chaired a Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Hearing focused on President Biden’s FY2024 budget request for the U.S. Forest Service. During the hearing, Sen. Cantwell asked U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore how the U.S. Forest Service can help prevent major wildfire burns and closures like those caused by the Bolt Creek Fire last fall, which burned 14,000 acres along U.S. Highway 2, forcing seven different closures of the vital east west corridor.

“I want to recognize that we have a bunch of firefighters here, particularly from the Mount Baker Snoqualmie Forest. Thank you for being here,” said Sen. Cantwell. “I noticed when I talked about Bolt Creek, they were nodding because they know how bad that fire [was]. What can we do on the workforce side to make sure that we have the personnel here and ready to fight this fire season?”

“As we approach the busiest part of the fire year of 2023, for this year, the Forest Service is really aspiring to have about 11,300 firefighters on board,” said Chief Moore. “We know that we need additional capacity, which is why we're requesting additional capacity in the FY24 President's Budget. And we're requesting funding for an additional 975 firefighters and support personnel.”

Sen. Cantwell also addressed the National Interagency Fire Center wildfire outlook, which shows that areas in Central Washington “are forecast to have above normal significant fire potential” this July.

“The Central part of our state, which is a pretty big ag economy, [over $4] billion worth of agricultural products, seems to be right in the epicenter of what people are saying will be the hotspot,” said Sen. Cantwell.

The State of Washington experienced 14 large wildfires in 2022, burning more than 84,000 acres. Last October, smoke from wildfires in the Cascades caused Seattle to have the worst air quality of any city on Earth.

Sen. Cantwell also questioned Chief Moore on why the U.S. Forest Service has yet to implement safety and technology requirements authorized by the bipartisan John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, which Cantwell championed in 2019.

“We passed the Dingell Act several years ago. So, when are we going to have these new tools for firefighters this year on technology, on mapping, on communication?” said Sen. Cantwell. “We’ve got to get the right information in the hands of people who are on the ground taking the risk. We will follow up with you and get even more specificity on what the resources can be that we need to make sure this is implemented.”

Sen. Cantwell, who chairs the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation and is a Senior Member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has consistently worked to make sure wildfire funding is increased as wildfires become more common in Washington state and around the nation.

In October 2022, Sen. Cantwell and Representatives DelBene and Schrier visited Sultan, WA, and met with local leaders about potential impacts of the Bolt Creek Fire. That same day the Members sent a letter to the Forest Service, urging them to expedite emergency repairs. Shortly after the letter was sent, the U.S. Forest Service announced mitigation efforts to prevent landslides and flood along Highway 2 in the area burned by the Bolt Creek Fire.

In May 2022, Sen. Cantwell introduced the bipartisan Fire Ready Nation Act, enhancing NOAA’s technologies to forecast weather conditions that cause and spread wildfires.

In June 2022, Sen. Cantwell visited the National Weather Service Spokane Forecasting Office to highlight improvements in wildfire prevention and response, viewing new fire and smoke forecasting equipment provided to the region with funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), including a ceilometer that will be installed at Spokane International Airport to provide more accurate smoke predictions.

The BIL also included $8.25 billion for more than 20 federal programs to reduce fuel with prescribed burns and rebuild areas destroyed by wildfires. The BIL package included $5 billion to upgrade the nation’s grid infrastructure, reducing the risk of outdated equipment sparking destructive fires and paying for investments like underground of transmission lines in fire prone areas. $180 million of these funds went to NOAA, including $13.5 million in funding for 900 ceilometers that detect smoke in the atmosphere and $10 million for upgraded IMET laptops and weather instruments, like weather balloons used in fighting fires. Sen. Cantwell successfully fought to include $1.8 billion for the U.S. Forest Service Hazardous Fuels Reduction Program in the Inflation Reduction Act, which passed in August 2022.

Video of Sen. Cantwell’s opening remarks is available HERE and audio HERE. Video of Sen. Cantwell’s Q&A with U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore is available HERE and audio HERE. A full transcript is available HERE.

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