Bakersfield Now: FIRE Act approved by Senate, effort to improve FEMA’s response to wildfires

By Celine Stevens

On Wednesday, the Senate unanimously passed U.S. Senator Alex Padilla’s bill intended to strengthen the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s wildfire preparedness and response efforts, as California wildfire season continues.

Senator Padilla’s Bill, the FIRE Act, will improve FEMA’s current response to wildfires, according to Padilla.

“The FEMA’s current procedures and requirements don’t always work for post wildfire recovery needs, and this bill will close those gaps,” he said.

The FIRE Act stands for the FEMA Improvement and Efficiency Act.

The Act includes various parts to help address the various repercussions of wildfires.

According to a statement from Padilla, it would help with housing assistance by requiring FEMA to prioritize disaster survivors when selling portable housing units, in addition to helping with housing assistance for low income residents.

It would also require FEMA to provide culturally competent crisis counselors and case managers that ensure disadvantaged communities get equitable treatment.

Tribal governments would also be able to access assistance to upgrade their emergency operation center, so they would be at equal standing with local and state governments.

“The FIRE Act will begin the process of allowing FEMA to pre-deploy resources during times of extremely high risk, in the West we know it as red flag warnings,” said Padilla.

Red flag warnings are issued for weather events like high temperatures and winds that can result in sparks that cause major wildfires.

In California, is only getting more common as California “wildfire season,” is an all year occurrence, according to the Kern County Fire Department.

However, this Act only applies to a federal level for FEMA, and there’s no guarantee it will become a law.

Fortunately, Kern County’s Fire Department Public Information Officer Andrew Freeborn said they already ensure that resources are pre-positioned when red flag warnings go into effect, to get a handle on the fire as soon as they can.

“If a fire were to occur, it’s going to be devastating, so let’s move as much resources as we can into place and be ready for it, and that way we can jump on that fire and contain it before it grows any larger,” said Freeborn.

Some of the resources include having more fire engines ready, upstaffing, and having administrative personnel in the dispatch center.

“Pre-positioning of equipment is already something that’s being done, the more frequent you can do so and the greater amount of resources that you can pre-position, the even better the outcome will be,” he said.

Gabe Garcia from the Bureau of Land Management’s Bakersfield Field Office said his agency works all year round to protect land from wildfires.

He said one of the biggest things is planning ahead.

“That’s a big part of the process too, making sure that we’re managing our forested areas in a way that would make them more resilient to wildland fire. And so, we go out and we do lots of different fuel reduction projects.”

Garcia also said it is vital that people are prepared for a wildfire.

You should always have a go-bag ready, and make sure to follow any evacuation warnings coming from local agencies.

“They spread pretty quickly, and so heed the warnings that you get in Kern County and other agencies that they give out evacuation warnings and evacuation orders and making sure you’re following those directions you’re getting.”

As for the FIRE Act, the legislation will now move to the U.S. House of Representatives for further consideration.

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