Sacramento Bee: California senator wants FEMA to pick up more of the tab to fight and recover from wildfires

By Gillian Brassil

Federal lawmakers are hoping to speedily pass legislation that would help California brace for longer, hotter and drier wildfire seasons.

On Thursday, Sen. Alex Padilla announced a pair of bills that would allow the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assume a larger share of costs to fight and recover from wildfires.

Last year, almost 2.6 million acres burned in California. Drought and weather forecasts put wildfire experts on high alert for another devastating season in 2022.

Already 9,152 acres have burned across 2,021 incidents in California in 2022, according to California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, Cal Fire, as of May 25. Wildfires sparked in Glenn and Colusa on Tuesday while the Sacramento Valley was under a red flag warning for dangerous weather conditions.

Certain grants used to cover wildfire costs are capped at a 75-25 split between federal, state and local agencies. The bills would allow the federal government to pay more than 75% in agreed upon circumstances, which FEMA has done in response to other disasters.

The Fire Suppression Improvement Act would ensure that firefighting assets can get FEMA’s Fire Management Assistance Grants and that the federal government could pay a higher percentage of the bill.

The Post Fire Flooding and Debris Flow Act would work the same way. It would allow FEMA to cover a greater share of costs for work done to prepare for post-fire flooding or debris flow through different grants.

“FEMA is good at what they do. They’ve gotten good at preparing for and responding to floods, tornadoes, hurricanes,” Padilla said in an interview on Wednesday. “Wildfires, not so much.”

Padilla, a Democrat and former California secretary of state, drafted the legislation after speaking with officials at the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services and Cal Fire.

“This legislation is a significant move in the right direction,” Mark Ghilarducci, the director of CalOES, said in a statement. “These timely efforts to modernize the federal reimbursement process reflects the nature of today’s evolving disaster landscape and will allow communities to better prepare for, respond to, and recover from climate-driven emergencies.”

While Padilla was a state senator, he authored the bill that paved the way for the early earthquake warning system in use by CalOES today. His state work fostered a continued relationship with state agencies when he stepped into Vice President Kamala Harris’ unexpired Senate term in 2021.

“It’s obviously something that he cares deeply about and understands the challenges of,” Brian Ferguson, the deputy director of crisis communications at CalOES, said in an interview on Wednesday. “So since he took office, he’s been a good friend to law enforcement in the fire service here in California.”

The Dixie Fire, California’s second largest wildfire ever at 963,000 acres, cost federal and state agencies about $637 million to combat, according to an annual report by the National Interagency Fire Center. It was the most expensive wildfire to fight in U.S. history.

The Beckwourth Fire Complex in Plumas National Forest cost about $543 million and the Caldor Fire which started in the Eldorado National Forest cost $271 million.

FEMA reimbursed the state for up to 75% of its firefighting costs, though it turned down El Dorado County’s request for aid to individuals whose homes or businesses burned. Padilla, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, asked the administration to reconsider.

Feinstein, a California Democrat who has sponsored several wildfire initiatives since joining the Senate in 1992, will co-sponsor Padilla’s Senate bills. So will Democratic Sens. Ben Ray Luján and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico and Patty Murray of Washington.

In the House of Representatives, Colorado Rep. Joe Neguse, a Democrat, introduced a parallel version of the suppression act earlier this year and California Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, will introduce the flooding and debris act.

Padilla’s bills will need to make it out of the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, of which he is a member.

President Joe Biden has made climate change issues one of the administration’s priorities. The U.S. Forest Service announced a multi-billion dollar, 10-year strategy to address wildfires this winter. It prioritizes treating forests and working with local agencies on vulnerable areas.

Padilla and Feinstein have pushed several measures over the last year to deal with the growing risk of wildfires and climate issues.

Through the bipartisan infrastructure act signed last fall, billions went toward strengthening the power grid against natural disasters, removing hazardous fuels, carrying out post-fire restoration, boosting firefighter pay and defending high-risk communities.

Padilla’s FIRE Act cleared the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs this year. The act would revise the law that governs FEMA so it can to respond faster to wildfires.

“We’re still in a very sustained drought, which is not helpful when it comes to trying to prevent or mitigate wildfires,” Padilla said. “But we should each do our parts to follow the guidance of all of our local authorities — such as don’t throw cigarette butts out the window, being careful when we’re out in wilderness areas — and in the event of a fire, listen closely to evacuation orders and those sorts of things.”

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