Benjamin Weiss

WASHINGTON (CN) — Congress must help agencies cooperate on emergency management as climate change puts large swaths of the country under near-constant threat of wildfires, a panel of experts told the Senate’s homeland security panel Thursday.

In the U.S., hotter, drier conditions have let to increasingly frequent and more devastating wildfires, most recently in February, as the Smokehouse Creek fire in Texas ravaged more than a million acres of land. The fire, which has claimed the title of the Lone Star State’s largest ever wildfire, is only now under control.

The Texas fires are only the latest example of the growing spate of deadly wildfires that not only destroy miles of woods, pastures and rangeland but also threaten American communities. August’s Lahaina wildfires, which broke out because of dry conditions and high winds on Hawaii’s island of Maui, killed more than 100 people and caused billions in property damage.

Wildfires have become so frequent in some areas of the country that responders have stopped referring to a “fire season,” opting instead for the term “fire year,” a group of emergency response professionals told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs during a hearing Thursday morning.

“The unexpected is no longer unexpected,” said Jamie Barnes, director of Utah’s forestry, fire and state lands department. “It is the new normal.”

Experts invited to testify before the homeland security panel warned lawmakers that federal, state and local efforts to combat wildfires have lagged behind their growing threat. Part of that gap originates in how the government responds to wildfires as opposed to other natural disasters, they contended.

David Fogerson, chief of the emergency management division and office of homeland security in the Nevada Department of Public Safety, pointed out that efforts to adequately respond to wildfires often get hampered by land ownership issues — especially in places like the Silver State, where roughly 80% of the land is federally owned.

“A red flag warning does not trigger local, state, federal and tribal nation coordination to prepare” for a wildfire, Fogerson said. “There’s no opening emergency operation centers, no community-wide approach and no collective movement of resources, as the wildfire is still viewed as the responsibility of whichever agency manages the land.”

The government’s response to wildfires, especially when they begin on federal land, is also hobbled by outdated rules about when states and local communities can access resources from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Christopher Currie, director of the Government Accountability Office’s homeland security and justice division.

“The current system focuses on suppression and mitigation in rural and federal lands,” he said, “and what we’ve seen is that wildfires are now affecting very populated areas over the last 10 years.”

Under current FEMA guidelines, communities affected by wildfires aren’t able to access grants or other resources from the agency until the blaze crosses into state or municipal land, Currie said.

“That’s just an archaic process,” he said. “It’s tied up in how these programs have been applied for other types of disasters.”

Wildfire response is further tripped up by the competing priorities of federal agencies, Currie added, pointing in particular to the issue of air quality. Agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service look to mitigate wildfires with controlled burns that flush out tinder for larger fires — but the Environmental Protection Agency is more concerned about reducing the air pollution that might result from the smoke such burns generate.

That pressure extends to states, said Barnes, who told lawmakers that Utah spends its summer months “inundated with smoke from wildfires of other states.”

“The majority of the focus around air quality is out of proportion to the frequency and ferocity of wildfires,” he said.

Federal agencies need to better collaborate to improve wildfire response, the group of witnesses said Thursday, suggesting that the government should prepare for and mitigate fires in a similar way to how it responds to hurricanes.

“We don’t care who owns a hurricane,” said Fogerson. “We react as a collective community and support survivor outcomes using an enterprise-wide approach.”

Wildfire response should take a page out of the book of hurricane readiness, he argued, pre-positioning resources before a fire breaks out and standing up emergency operations centers that are aimed at keeping an entire community safe, rather than just the land on which the fire started.

Currie agreed, pointing out that when a hurricane is about to make landfall in a state, the government doesn’t just declare a state of emergency in the area where the storm is set to come ashore but instead issues warnings to states across the region.

“They’re unpredictable,” he said. “We know it’s going to be bad, and we just go ahead and assume that’s going to happen.”

Not so with wildfire response, Currie observed. “We sort of wait and hope it doesn't happen — we hope it doesn’t cross from federal, rural land into a populated area. That mentality has got to change, and whatever sort of rules and legislation are behind that needs to change.”

Interdisciplinary collaboration is also necessary to build community resilience to an increased wildfire threat, said Lori Moore-Merrell, head of FEMA’s fire response administration.

Pointing to the results of an interagency working group commissioned under the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Moore-Merrell told senators that the federal government should increase its focus on pre-fire and post-fire planning “to break the current cycle of increasingly severe wildfire risk, damages and losses.”

That preparation will require modernizing fire detection technology and ensuring firefighters have proper pay and equipment access, she said. Local firefighters must also be trained to respond to wildfire events in populated areas, Moore-Merrell added.

Reforms are further needed to minimize the disconnect between agencies in wildfire recovery, said Currie.

“What we hear consistently everywhere we go around the country is that these programs are way too complicated, they take a long time and they’re very frustrating to navigate,” he told lawmakers. “When you’re trying to use multiple federal programs together for recovery, it becomes almost impossible.”

Currie noted that GAO has suggested that the government establish a dedicated commission specifically for helping people affected by wildfires navigate federal recovery assistance.

“There are many, many things that need to take place to change the way we look at wildfire preparedness, response and recovery,” he said.