Wildfire smoke worries a working Congress
Planned Senate hearing, bills find new interest as smoke from Canadian fires reaches D.C.
The 2023 wildfire season was already predicted to be historically bad, even by recent standards. But when Senators showed up for work on June 8, conditions few have seen in their home states had arrived at their office doorsteps as a low-pressure system swept high-altitude smoke down across the East Coast of the United States from massive wildfires in Quebec.
That day, President Biden had communicated with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, the National Interagency Fire Center, the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies. The Quebec fires had already burned an area larger than the state of Maryland.
That day, New York City had the worst air quality of any major city in the world at 14.5 times greater than the World Health Organization's annual air quality (AQI) guideline value. The New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies and Washington Nationals postponed baseball games.
People as far west as Indianapolis and as far south as South Carolina were impacted. Just weeks earlier, an observer in Denver could not see the mountains because of smoke coming down from Alberta, according to Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.).
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) joked at a Senate hearing that day that "most Easterners aren't used to dealing with this level of smoke. And by Easterners, I mean basically anybody to the east of Colorado. But this is an unfortunate recurring reality for us in the West."
Wildfires, big and bigger
Over 100 million acres are at elevated risk of experiencing high-intensity catastrophic fires – an area more than six times the size of West Virginia. In a 2022 report, the Congressional Budget Office concluded that fires on federal lands are five times larger than those on non-federal lands.
According to Rep. Tom Tiffany (R-Wis.), over 38 million acres of land burned in the last five years alone, a total area nearly as large as his state of Wisconsin. “Until recently, our country had never lost more than 10 million acres in a year. But we have now hit that ominous mark three times in less than a decade.”
Over the past 20 years, the area of land consumed annually by wildfires has doubled. Jeff Rupert with the Office of Wildland Fire told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that, “no matter what is driving mega fires, whether climate change, longer droughts, more extreme weather and fuel related to very aggressive suppression," areas farther north toward the Arctic that have never burned are now at risk.
To meet the challenge, the U.S. Forest Service will have up to 24 Next Generation air tankers, more than 200 helicopters and more than 900 engines available, according to Deputy Chief Jaelith Hall-Rivera, who told a House panel in May that her agency aspires to hire 11,300 wildland firefighters nationwide this year. The president’s proposed fiscal 2024 budget also proposes to hire 970 additional USFS firefighters.
Mutual aid is international
Canadian officials say their country is on track for their worst season of wildfire destruction on record.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) wrote Secretary Tom Vilsack to ask that his department double the number of USFS personnel deployed to fight fires in Canada. “The best way to ensure the U.S. does not suffer another wave of wildfire air pollution is to contain these fires up in Canada as soon as possible,” he argued.
Schumer added in floor remarks, “What we considered freak accidents today could become the norm tomorrow.” Colleague Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) wrote to USFS Chief Randy Moore with much the same message, and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) found himself advising constituents how to handle the smoke condition in the city.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) noted at the June 8 hearing that her northwestern state has been affected by smoke from British Columbia fires. Calling for "better cooperation between the Forest Service and the state to break down any barriers that are preventing us from having a quick aviation response," she called for fully engaging Canadian counterparts.
Retardant leads 2023 legislation
Common drivers of wildfire response in recent years, Reps. Jimmy Panetta (D-Calif.), Norma Torres (D-Calif.) and David Valadao (R-Calif.) each have bills in the hopper. Panetta’s Wildfire Emergency Act funds prescribed fire, reforestation, training and other programs. Torres’ Wildfire Grid Resiliency Act focuses on electrical grid resilience.
But it is Valadao’s Emergency Wildfire Fighting Technology Act that looks to be advancing first, following a committee hearing in May and committee action in June. His bipartisan bill would update deployment protocols for Containerized Aerial Firefighting Systems (CAFS).
CAFS consists of disposable containers that can be added to a range of aircraft under Containerized Delivery System (CDS) procedures and dropped without the dangerous dive-bombing technique associated with aerial suppression. Deputy Chief Hall-Rivera told the Senate committee that her agency is working on pilot testing and equipping its fire fleet with tracking devices.
Additionally, Hall-Rivera told Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) that the MAFFS program, a longtime partnership with the Department of Defense, involved the modular systems that roll on to the aircraft and then are able to drop retardant, has been successful. USFS provides the aircraft, the personnel and the retardant system. Eight MAFFS units are housed at bases in California, Nevada, Wyoming and Colorado.
Cortez Masto remarked that C-130-H and C-130-J aircraft based in her state outfitted with MAFFS can hold and drop up to 3,000 gallons of retardant in less than five seconds over a swath of land one-quarter of a mile long by 100 feet wide.
But the use of retardant is not unchallenged, such that the chair of the Western Caucus led a floor discussion in January to defend retardant. Valadao’s colleague Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.) has kept on top of the issue as well, following litigation earlier this year challenging retardant as a pollutant.
The question in that suit involved subjecting the USFS to a permitting process akin to herbicides and other uses approved first by the EPA. “Here in Congress, we have legislation ready,” he said in May, referring to his bill (cosponsored by three Democrats from his state) to ensure drops continue with an explicit congressional authorization.
These bills could get before the House for debate and votes in short order:
- The Proven Forest Management Act addresses forestry and fuels management.
- Another bill would require federal wildfire response within a day and explicitly respect local efforts.
- The FIRESHEDS Act would empower the Interior Department to create emergency fire shed management areas.
- A bill entitled “Direct Hire to Fight Fires,” cosponsored by LaMalfa, would expand direct hiring authority to certain support positions.
- The Fire Department Repayment Act would standardize cost sharing under a 1955 law.
- The NIST Wildland Fire Communications and Information Dissemination Act would encourage research and field testing to develop standards for disseminating information among wildfire responders specifically.
Where we stand
A mere three weeks later, legislation crawls at the speed of Congress while empty Capitol office buildings again sit in haze on another Code Red air quality day. And with three weeks of planned work in July ahead of the annual summer recess, these bills will compete for attention as lawmakers look ahead to moving fiscal 2024 funding bills and other priorities.