Padilla Introduces Bills to Reform Federal Wildfire Disaster Response
Legislation would strengthen FEMA’s disaster preparedness and response efforts, and make federal disaster response more equitable for wildfire impacted communities
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Following another season of record-breaking wildfires in the West, U.S. Senator Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) introduced two bills to redesign the federal government’s response to wildfires and provide additional resources to ensure equity for communities experiencing natural disasters.
The FIRE Act would make several changes to the Stafford Act that governs FEMA—which was written when FEMA primarily focused on hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods—to ensure that FEMA’s disaster preparedness and response efforts fully address the unique nature of wildfires and their impacts on communities. This includes directing FEMA to pre-deploy assets during times of highest risk, red flag warnings, improving relocation assistance for public infrastructure affected by fires, ensuring equity of assistance for tribal communities and tribal governments, and examining ways to speed up the FEMA assistance process.
The Disaster Equity and Fairness Act would ensure that FEMA’s disaster preparedness and response efforts fully address the unique needs of underserved communities, emergency food and water needs following a disaster, and the impact of consecutive disasters on communities.
In the Senate, the FIRE Act and the Disaster Equity and Fairness Act are co-sponsored by U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), and Patty Murray (D-Wash.). The bills were introduced in the House by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and are co-sponsored by Reps. Mike Thompson, Jared Huffman, and Jimmy Panetta (all D-Calif.).
“The climate crisis is now a daily reality for communities across California. Extreme weather events and natural disasters, especially wildfires, are the new normal and they threaten our homes, businesses, and livelihoods year in and year out,” said Senator Padilla. “I’ve seen the very real human and economic costs of these disasters throughout our state, and it is clear that we need to change our approach. That’s why I’m proud to work with local stakeholders and community leaders on this legislation to reshape the federal government’s response to natural disasters and bring relief to communities on the front lines of the climate crisis.”
“By updating the Stafford Act to ensure it takes into account the unique challenges and effects of wildfire and guaranteeing FEMA is able to quickly and effectively help communities devastated by wildfires, these two bills will help the federal government better respond to all natural disasters,” said Senator Feinstein. “We’re going to see more catastrophic wildfires, there’s no question of that. The federal government’s response to these disasters and assistance to affected communities is critical now and in the years to come.”
“The climate crisis is not some distant threat. It’s here, and communities in Oregon and across the West are suffering its worse impacts with blazing infernos that destroy lives and property,”said Senator Wyden. “Wildfires are natural disasters and should be treated as such, and that means reforming our laws to ensure all Oregon communities are better protected from destruction and have all the resources they need for recovery.”
“In September 2020, I drove more than 600 miles across Oregon and never once broke free from the thick cloud of smoke blanketing our state,” said Senator Merkley. “I saw entire towns that had burned to the ground, and spoke with families who had lost everything. Wildfires are some of the most catastrophic natural disasters we face, and with climate chaos fueling larger and hotter fires, more and more communities are going to be facing direct impacts from wildfire disasters in the future. FEMA needs to be fully prepared and engaged in helping communities respond and recover from wildfires, and these bills are an important step in bringing FEMA up to speed with the reality of increasingly dangerous wildfire seasons.”
“Climate change means devastating wildfires are quickly becoming the new normal—wiping entire towns in Washington state off the map. We need to ensure our federal wildfire prevention and response efforts are able to meet this moment and account for the severity of fire seasons we’re now facing,” said Senator Patty Murray. “That means passing legislation to make sure communities have the resources they need to prepare for the next wildfire season, fight these fires, and build back afterward. I’m going to keep doing everything I can to streamline and strengthen how we respond to natural disasters in the face of a growing climate crisis.”
“This year’s ongoing fire season is devastating communities in California and across the West. Congress must ensure all federal agencies and statutes are set up in ways that best support our communities as they prepare for and respond to deadly fires,” said Rep. Lofgren, Chair of the California Democratic Congressional Delegation. “Wildfire assistance should not be treated as less important than hurricanes, tornadoes or floods, and these proposals would improve and bring parity to FEMA’s efforts. I’m proud to join Senator Padilla in making sure FEMA operations and policies reflect the unique nature of wildfires.”
“Our district and our entire region has been hit hard by fires over the past few years and it’s one of my top priorities to bring back resources to help us recover and to ensure the Federal government is making it easier to respond when fires happen,” said Rep. Thompson. “That’s why I’m proud to be an original coauthor of the Disaster Equity and Fairness Act and the FEMA Improvement, Reform and Efficiency Act, two important bills to make it easier for local communities to recover after fire and to ensure we are best positioned to respond and mitigate the impact of fires. I’m proud that the Disaster Equity and Fairness Act would codify into law my FEED Act, which helps get food into communities hit hard by disasters. Thank you to Representative Lofgren and Senator Padilla for their leadership on this important bill.”
“Climate change is accelerating, and the world is needing to adapt to a “new normal” of increased extreme weather threats like the devastating wildfires my district has been battling year over year,” said Rep. Huffman. “As we work to combat the climate crisis directly, these bills take a two-pronged approach to help FEMA evolve their practices to meet these new challenges. The FIRE Act would allow FEMA to response faster to the risks of catastrophic wildfires, better prioritize the needs of survivors, and improve partnerships with tribal governments, while the Disaster Equity and Fairness Act recognizes that underserved communities victimized by wildfires and climate change may need help from FEMA as they work to navigate the bureaucratic process to rebuild. The climate crisis isn’t waiting, and it’s critical we update policies to protect our communities from its worst impacts.”
“As wildfire seasons turn into wildfire years, our communities will continue to need more and more federal assistance. That’s why it’s our responsibility in Congress to ensure that FEMA lives up to its responsibility to adapt and improve its response and recovery efforts when it comes to wildfires in the West,” said Rep. Panetta. “Our proposed legislation takes into account the new reality and extreme dangers of wildfires by requiring FEMA to pre-deploy resources during red flag warnings, provide technical assistance to economically disadvantaged communities, increase the federal cost share for emergency food delivery assistance, expand eligibility for relocation assistance to fire-prone areas, and more. As we have seen with other types of natural disasters across our nation, FEMA is very capable of providing this type of advanced assistance. We just have to ensure that communities affected by wildfires also get the same attention and resources from the federal government.”
The legislation builds on feedback and input from community stakeholders in California. Over the summer, Padilla hosted a discussion and listening roundtable with local leaders in Santa Rosa on wildfire prevention, response, and recovery efforts. He also visited the Forest Service’s Incident Command Post to hear from officials on the ground how to best support fire crews as they worked to combat the Dixie Fire.
“The FIRE Act takes important steps to provide for equity in emergency preparedness and response, and allows for greater protection against climate change-driven disasters,” said Cal OES Director Mark Ghilarducci. “It will also help modernize emergency management and assist communities, responders, and the private and nonprofit sectors to prepare for, and respond to, the scale and frequency of disasters that the nation faces today.”
“World Central Kitchen has seen first-hand not only the devastating impact of the increasing frequency and intensity of climate-related disasters — from fires to floods to hurricanes — but also how our country’s inability to meet critical needs in the aftermath makes that impact even worse,” said José Andrés, founder of World Central Kitchen. “Too often, Americans are left hungry, thirsty, and alone — wondering when help will arrive. We must empower states, local governments, and non-profits with the tools they need even before disaster strikes. We should activate local resources like restaurants, and ensure FEMA reimbursement concerns don’t prevent food and water from reaching people in need. It’s time to acknowledge that we are in a new normal, and this new normal requires us to evolve the way we operate to act with the urgency of now — and make sure no American is left behind.”
“The California State Association of Counties (CSAC) applauds Senator Padilla for his diligent efforts to improve the Stafford Act,” said CSAC President and Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore. “The commonsense reforms proposed in the FIRE Act and the Disaster Equity and Fairness Act will empower communities to become more resilient. Moreover, local officials and emergency managers can focus on planning and recovery and getting residents the assistance they need. These investments will pay for themselves in the years to come. Most importantly, these reforms will help save lives.”
“I am extremely supportive of the FIRE Act moving forward,” said Chair of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, Lynda Hopkins. “Updating rules so that FEMA can more actively protect Californians against the impacts of catastrophic wildfires, through earlier deployment before a wildfire begins and deeper, timely engagement in the recovery process, will help Sonoma County be resilient. I’m also grateful to see that equitable access is specifically prioritized, ensuring that FEMA will increase technical assistance to those communities with the greatest needs during a disaster.”
“Since the aftermath of the Tubbs fire, the City of Santa Rosa has been working closely with FEMA and other federal partners to rebuild a more resilient community,” said Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Rogers. “Along the way we have had to overcome federal regulatory and policy issues that have added significant time and expense to our rebuilding process. Senator Padilla’s FEMA Improvement, Reform, and Efficiency, or FIRE Act, will ensure that FEMA has the authority and flexibility needed for efforts like reforming relocation assistance so that wildland urban interface area communities can build back safely and efficiently.”
Since taking office earlier this year, Padilla has prioritized improving the federal response to wildfires and other natural disasters both in California and across the country. Earlier this year, Padilla introduced a package of bills aimed at ensuring California has the federal resources it needs to protect communities impacted by wildfire smoke and is leading legislation aimed at battling wildfires, protecting workers, and helping combat the effects of wildfire smoke. Padilla also successfully advocated for California to receive billions for wildfire response and drought relief.