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Hearing on wildfire bill set ablaze by clash over drafting process

A red sunset in smoke-filled western Montana. (William Munoz/Missoula Current file)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The ever-present topic of bipartisanship overshadowed the markup of a bill aimed at improving the government’s response to wildfires on Tuesday, in a hearing where members mostly agreed over the issues and solutions presented in the legislation and then ultimately approved it.

The bill — coined the National Wildland Fire Risk Reduction Program Act — received criticism from Republican members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee who claimed their Democratic colleagues did not include them in negotiations when drafting the bill.

Ranking member Representative Frank Lucas, a Republican from Oklahoma, claimed the committee is normally able to operate outside of politics but this bill was an exception to that rule. 

“The behind-the-scenes partisanship on this bill was unnecessary, unprecedented and counterproductive to a healthy legislative environment of this committee,” Lucas said. “Instead of working together, Republican staff weren’t given the bill draft text until just days before it was introduced. We were given little opportunity to provide input … The process didn’t have to be this way. Wildfires know no political boundaries. I can’t think of a more pressing issue for members in the West.” 

Representative Mike Garcia, a California Republican, made similar remarks and said the bill “broke with tradition.” 

“I believe that this is an issue where there’s a great deal of bipartisan agreement,” Garcia said. “Unfortunately, I think in this case, politics and pride have gotten in the way of a good policy.” 

Representative Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from California who introduced the bill, disagreed with that sentiment and said she spent over a year drafting the legislation with an effort to include minority members. 

“I think the attitude displayed by the ranking member is, I’m sure heartfelt, but not as connected with the actual events as it might have been,” Lofgren said. 

While members of the committee continually exchanged snarks back and forth disagreeing over whether the bill was bipartisan in nature, the members generally agreed on the issues at hand and many of the amendments proposed on both sides of the aisle. 

“In the past three decades, the United States has sustained more than 300 weather disasters, and that includes 19 severe wildfire events that cost more than $100 billion in damages, and which caused nearly 400 deaths,” said Representative Suzanne Bonamici, an Oregon Democrat. “Climate change has increased the intensity of severe fire events. Since 2000, annual fire events burned, on average, 7 million acres — that’s double the total acres burned in the 1990s.” 

The bill would invest over $2 billion over five years and create a program to reduce losses of life and property from fires by better understanding how burns operate, adopting science-based mitigation efforts, and better understanding the impact of climate change on wildfire risk. It would also create an interagency committee with 16 members from across the government, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the Departments of Defense and Housing and Urban Development. 

“We cannot continue to fight extreme weather in a piecemeal fashion,” said Representative Deborah Ross, a Democrat from North Carolina. “It requires a whole of government approach that uses robust data and cutting edge technology to respond to wildfires.” 

Representative Jerry McNerney said the legislation would be similar to what is now in place for earthquakes. 

“It’s due time to improve our federal research development and response to wildfires,” the California Democrat said. “If enacted, the legislation would establish a coordinated program to reduce wildfire land risk similar to what is already exists for earthquakes … We need to increase investment in avoidance, minimization, mitigation of wildfires as well as accurate forecasting and messaging to reduce damage when fires do occur.” 

Following several votes on amendments to the bill, the committee voted in favor of sending the bill to the full House of Representatives.