Rep. Neguse pushes for natural disasters and conservation bill as it passes Senate

A firefighter monitors the Buffalo Mountain Fire in June 2018.
Summit Fire & EMS / Courtesy Photo

More pay, more staff, and bigger wildfire fuel management projects can result from the Fire Response and Drought Resilience Act. The law was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on Friday and is a merger of more than 45 attempts federal legislators to deal with natural disasters.

The bill, pushed by U.S. Representative Joe Neguse, would boost federal firefighter salaries and benefits and bring additional resources to communities as they rebuild after wildfire damage, in addition to many others efforts.

The bill “encompasses not only the prevention and response to wildfires, but also the restoration and resilience of our communities and our environment,” said the chief of the red, white and blue fire protection district. , Jim Keating. “As we have watched wildfires become more frequent and devastating, firefighting tactics have required change, just as our methods of prevention and resilience must now change to better protect our citizens and our environment. , and this bill contains a number of provisions to help.”

The bill would establish a 10-year national wildfire response plan. It would authorize 10 landscape-scale projects and identify another 20, all related to reducing and conserving wildfire risk.

It would also provide federal emergency assistance to at-risk people in Colorado suffering from poor air quality caused by wildfire smoke. This last benefit would only apply to a low-income person, a parent or guardian with a child who has not reached the age of 19, a pregnant woman, a person aged 65 or over, a person with respiratory failure or cardiovascular disease or person with chronic disease exacerbated by smoke inhalation. These individuals may be provided with smoke inhalation prevention equipment, such as an N95 respirator or portable air filtration unit.

The bill directs the Secretary of Agriculture to prioritize U.S. Forest Service vacancies in areas at high risk of wildfires or located in high-use areas. Since the bill did not pass, Dillon Ranger District members were unable to comment on their staffing status.

The bill would also incorporate elements of the Tim Hart Wildland Firefighters Classification and Pay Equity Act. In particular, the bill would establish a fixed starting salary of at least $36,959 with parity for federal firefighters, as well as annual adjustments, a disability pension, hazard pay and seven consecutive days of leave for Mental Health.

“As wages have risen and workers have become scarcer in almost every occupation, the US Forest Service has struggled to compete for firefighters for their federal teams,” Keating said. “It is very important that a strong federal wildfire suppression program be maintained because the response program can determine the success or failure of national wildfire suppression efforts, and this bill contains a provision to recruit and maintain federal firefighting teams.

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

“For too long, this brave group of men and women have been underappreciated and underpaid for the grueling and potentially deadly work they undertake on behalf of millions of Americans,” said the executive director of the Wildland. Firefighter Foundation, Burk Minor, on the Tim Hart Act. “Issues with compensation, 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 that is desperately needed to meet the challenges of the increasing length and intensity of wildfire seasons.

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

A provision in the law would also encourage the use of Conservation and Youth Corps to achieve certain goals of the 10-year wildfire management plan.

The law would also include waiving certain disaster-related costs for individuals, protecting endangered fish species in the Upper Colorado and San Juan River basins, allocating more grants to deal with the threat of climate change.

“Across America, the impacts of climate change continue to worsen, and in this historic new normal, record-breaking droughts and wildfires have become all too common,” said Neguse, among fellow lawmakers. “We are proud to have won so many victories under this bill. This is a bill that we believe is the right time for the West.