House approves bill to help West fight wildfires, drought

WASHINGTON (AP) – The House on Friday passed sweeping legislation to help Western communities deal with increasingly severe wildfires and droughts that have caused billions of dollars in damage in recent years, fueled by climate change.

The measure includes 49 separate bills and would increase firefighter pay and benefits; promoting the resilience and mitigation projects of communities affected by climate change; water protection; 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, historic droughts and record-setting wildfires have become all too common,” said Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., the bill’s lead sponsor. Colorado has experienced increasingly devastating wildfires in recent years, including last year’s Marshall Fire, which caused more than $513 million in damage and destroyed nearly 1,100 homes and structures in Boulder County.

“What were once fire seasons are now fire years. For families across the country who have lost their homes to these devastating fires and for neighborhoods affected by drought, we know we must apply a whole-of-government approach to help community recovery and strengthen environmental resilience,” Negus said. “It’s a bill that we believe meets the moment in the West.”

The bill passed, 218-199, as California firefighters battled a wildfire near Yosemite National Park that forced thousands to evacuate and North Texas crews sought to contain another blaze.

Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, voted in favor of the bill, while Oregon Congressman Kurt Schrader was the only Democrat to oppose it.

The bill now heads to the Senate, where Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has sponsored a similar measure.

Both the House and Senate bills would permanently increase pay and benefits for federal wildland firefighters. President Joe Biden signed a measure last month granting big raises for the next two years, a move that affects more than 16,000 firefighters and sets the stage for another difficult wildfire season in the West.

Pay raises for federal firefighters were included in last year’s trillion-dollar infrastructure bill, but money was kept to help federal agencies decide where to hand over hiring and retention data. The increase approved by Biden was retroactive to October 1, 2021 and will expire on September 30, 2023.

The House bill would make the wage increases permanent and set the minimum wage for federal wildland firefighters at $20 an hour, or nearly $42,000 a year. It also increases eligibility for dangerous hazard pay and increases mental health and other services for firefighters. The bill is named after smoke dealer Tim Hart, who died fighting a wildfire in New Mexico last year.

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

California House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the bill a “huge victory for Californians and the country.” The Oak Fire, the largest so far this year, is “destroying our state,” he said. “At the same time, many of our communities regularly experience a lack of rain that can kill crops and fuel wildfires.”

The House bill would provide “urgently needed resources” to combat wildfires and droughts, “which will increase in frequency and intensity due to the climate crisis,” Pelosi said. The bill includes $500 million to maintain water levels in major reservoirs. invest in the drought-stricken Colorado River and water recycling and desalination.

Republicans denounced the measure as a “political message,” noting that the hourly wage for firefighters has increased by more than $20 in most cases. The House bill does not include additional money for the Forest Service or other agencies, and without the increase, the Forest Service says it would have to lay off about 470 forest firefighters.

Arkansas Rep. Bruce Westerman, the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, called it “outrageous” that Democrats would want to introduce provisions that could lead to firefighter layoffs in the midst of a devastating wildfire season.

“Democrats are finally waking up to the fire and drought crisis, exacerbated by years of forest mismanagement and a lack of long-term water storage. Unfortunately, the Democrats’ proposals are only workarounds,” Westerman said. He accused the Democrats of failing. Following science that shows the need to manage forests before fires start, they said Democrats are “not building the kind of infrastructure needed to make communities drought-resilient long-term,” while prioritizing “liberal talk” about climate change.

Negus called this allegation outrageous and stated that many of the bills included in the fire/drought legislation are Republican proposals.

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

“We are one indivisible nation and if one part of us is burning, we are all burning,” Hoyer said.

In addition to increasing firefighter pay, the bill improves forest management projects to reduce hazardous fuels, such as small trees and brush, that can make wildfires much more dangerous. It also implements grant programs to help communities affected by wildfire air pollution and to improve wildfire-damaged water bodies.

Republicans called the thinning projects — which also include prescribed burning and vegetation removal — unconscionable without waiving lengthy environmental reviews that could delay forest treatment for years.

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

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House approves bill to help West fight wildfires, drought Source link House approves bill to help West fight wildfires, drought

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