On Monday, 23 Californian Senators and members of Congress sent a letter to the Departments of Agriculture and Interior, asking that they make wildland firefighters available year round instead of seasonal to combat the growing out-of-season wildfire threats in California and other states.
In the letter written to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the California lawmakers noted that wildfires have now become a nearly year-round occurrence in the state due to climate change, with the number wildfires in 2021 already being “above average.” They also make it clear that because the federal government owns 57% of all forested areas in the state, a better federal plan is needed in California. The lawmakers came to the conclusion that a full-time wildfire firefighter force would be needed not only in California, but also nationwide, and would greatly held reduce wildfire risk and spread, as well as reduce costs when it comes to employee retention and seasonal hiring.
Senators Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla (both D-CA), as well as Representatives Zoe Lofgren, Scott Peters, Jimmy Panetta, Julia Brownley, Salud Carbajal, Jim Costa, Mark DeSaulnier, Anna G. Eshoo, John Garamendi, Jared Huffman, Sara Jacobs, Barbara Lee, Ted W. Lieu, Alan Lowenthal, Jerry McNerney, Grace F. Napolitano, Adam B. Schiff, Brad Sherman, Eric Swalwell, Juan Vargas and Pete Aguilar (D-CA) all said that this was now needed because of the “new normal” realities of when wildfires flared up in the golden state.
“As California and the West continue to contend with historic and destructive wildfire seasons, it has become clear that we are entering a “new normal” in which increasingly intense wildfires wreak havoc during a nearly year-round fire season,” said the lawmakers in the letter. “Last year, California had over 9,900 wildfires, which burned a record-setting 4.25 million acres, killed 33 people, and destroyed nearly 10,500 homes and structures. And this year, we are already well above average for both the number of fires and acres burned. Because the federal government owns 57% of the forest land in California, and climate change all but ensures an ever-expanding fire season in the years to come, we must begin to adapt our federal resources to better align with needs on the ground.”
“Transitioning to a larger, full-time workforce would add immediate capacity to fight wildfires and conduct prevention work nationwide, allow for greater flexibility in shifting personnel between regions when needed, support increased staff capacity to perform actions outside of the fire season that reduce fire risk, provide more stable work opportunities and employee benefits, increase employee retention, and reduce agency costs and burdens associated with the seasonal hiring process.”
While not noted by lawmakers, wildfires raged in California since the weekend including the 870 acre Refuge Fire in Siskiyou County. Cal Fire noted that the wildfire was “out of season.”
Many Californian members of Congress leave letter unsigned
Experts noted however that many didn’t sign the letter, despite many pushing for state or party unity on letters like this in the past.
“Look at who signed it,” explained wildfire firefighter turned environmental consultant Bart Matthews to the Globe. “All Democrats, nearly all of whom are in wildfire affected areas.”
“They didn’t include cost-effectiveness, mention state services, and a host of other issues, which explain why house Republicans from California didn’t sign this. It only covered wildfire areas, which explains why some Democrats, like Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) from San Francisco, a city, didn’t sign it. And then there are those democrats who live in wildfire vulnerable areas that didn’t sign it for unknown reasons, like Congresswoman Judy Chu (D-CA) whose district extends into the Angeles National Forest, which has been ravaged by wildfires in recent years.”
Her district also includes the historic Mt. Wilson Observatory, which was nearly destroyed last year by the Bobcat Fire.
“The letter needs some work and failed to mention many negatives, like the huge cost this would be, as well as some more positives, like how other countries keep asking for Californian wildfire assistance in their own countries,” added Matthews. “Like the 2020 Australian fires and, later, the 2020 California wildfire season. We helped each other out with firefighters and equipment and things. Not only did it help take out fires quicker, but it helped international relations.”
“We need what the letter asked, but it could have been written better and more convincingly.”
As of Tuesday, neither the Department of Agriculture or the Department of Interior have responded to the letter.
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