Rep. Neguse pushes for natural disaster and conservation bill as it moves to the Senate

A firefighter watches the Buffalo Mountain Fire in June, 2018.
Summit Fire & EMS/Courtesy photo

More pay, more staff and larger wildfire fuel management projects may come as a result of the Wildfire Response and Drought Resiliency Act. The act passed the U.S. House of Representatives Friday and is an amalgamation of more than 45 efforts from federal lawmakers to address natural disasters.

The bill, pushed by U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, would boost pay and benefits for federal wildland firefighters and would bring in additional resources for communities as they rebuild from wildfire damage, in addition to many more efforts.

The bill “not only encompasses wildfire prevention and response but also restoration and resiliency for our communities and environment,” Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District Chief Jim Keating said. “As we have observed wildfires become more prevalent and devastating, fire fighting tactics have required change as well our prevention and resiliency methods now must change to better protect our citizens and environment, and this bill has a number of provisions to assist.”

The bill would establish a 10-year national-level wildfire response plan. It would authorize 10 landscape-scale projects and identify 20 more, all related to wildfire risk reduction and conservation.

It would also provide federal emergency assistance to at-risk individuals in Colorado suffering from unhealthy air quality caused by wildfire smoke. The latter benefit would only apply to a low-income individual, a parent or guardian with a child who has not attained 19 years of age, a pregnant woman, an individual who is 65 years of age or older, an individual with chronic respiratory or cardiovascular illness or an individual with a chronic disease that is exacerbated by smoke inhalation. Such individuals could receive smoke-inhalation prevention equipment, like an N95 respirator or a portable air filtration unit.

The bill asks the Secretary of Agriculture to prioritize filling vacancies in the U.S. Forest Service in areas that are at high risk of wildfires or are located in high-use areas. Since the bill has not been passed into law, members of the Dillon Ranger District could not comment on their staffing status.

The bill would also incorporate elements of the Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act. In particular, the bill would establish a set starting wage of no less than $36,959 with parity for federal firefighters, as well as annual adjustments, disability annuity, hazard duty pay and seven consecutive days of mental health leave.

“As salaries have risen and workers have become more scarce in nearly every occupation, the U.S. Forest Service has struggled to compete for firefighters for their federal teams,” Keating said. “It is very important that a strong federal wildland firefighter program is maintained as the program for response can determine the success or failure of wildland firefighting efforts nationwide, and this bill contains an provision to recruit and maintain federal firefighting teams.”

Within a year of the bill’s passage, a federal report would determine whether pay, benefits, and bonuses provided to federal wildland firefighters are comparable to the pay, benefits, and bonuses provided for non-federal firefighters.

“Too long, this brave group of men and women have been underappreciated and undercompensated for the grueling and life-threatening work they undertake on behalf of millions of Americans,” Wildland Firefighter Foundation Executive Director Burk Minor said about the Tim Hart Act. “The issues of pay, classification, mental and physical health, recruitment, retention, and housing instability have long plagued this workforce. We are confident that these changes will lead to a more robust workforce which is desperately needed to tackle the challenges of the increasing length and intensity of  wildfire seasons.”

Two sections of the Wester Wildfire Support Act would come into effect through the Wildfire Response and Drought Resiliency Act. The first would be the establishment of a long-term burned area recovery account to protect watersheds, primarily those recently impacted by wildfires. The second would be the requirement of a spatial wildland fire management plan, intended mostly for prescribed burns.

A provision in the act would also encourage the use of Conservation and Youth Corps to meet some goals of the 10-year wildland fire management plan.

The act would also include the waiving of some disaster-related fees for individuals, the protection of endangered fish species in the Upper colorado and San Juan River Basins, the allocation of more grant money to address the threat of climate change.

“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 Neguse, standing among fellow lawmakers. “We’re proud to have secured so many victories as part of this bill. This is a bill that we believe meets the moment for the West.”

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