Senate Passes Padilla Bill to Improve Federal Wildfire Response

WATCH: Padilla speaks on Senate floor on his bill to improve federal wildfire response

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, U.S. Senator Alex Padilla’s (D-Calif.) bill to strengthen the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) wildfire preparedness and response efforts passed unanimously out of the Senate. The FIRE Act will update the Stafford Act that governs FEMA—which was written when the agency primarily focused on hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods. It will improve FEMA’s response to wildfires including by accounting for melted infrastructure and burned trees as well as begin allowing FEMA to pre-deploy assets during times of highest wildfire risk and red flag warnings. The legislation now moves to the U.S. House of Representatives for consideration.

Padilla’s FIRE Act will also improve FEMA’s counseling and case management services for Tribal governments and disadvantaged communities, help to ensure relocation assistance is more accessible for public infrastructure in fire prone communities, prioritize survivors’ housing needs after disasters, ensure equity of assistance for Tribal communities and Tribal governments, and examine ways to speed up the federal assistance process.

“Wildfires pose an extreme and direct threat to the lives and homes of millions of Americans every year. I’m proud to see the FIRE Act passed unanimously by the Senate today to reinforce that protecting our communities from the destruction of wildfires is a bipartisan priority,” said Senator Padilla. “This critical bill will offer additional necessary protection and resources to wildfire-impacted communities. I look forward to seeing these important reforms to our federal wildfire preparation and response systems begin to more equitably address the destructive impacts of wildfires on our communities every year.”

Since taking office, Padilla has made improving the federal response to wildfires one of his top priorities. He 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 in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Padilla’s Fire Suppression Improvement Act, a bill to help ease the burden on state and local governments who are shouldering the weight of increasingly devastating wildfires was also unanimously advanced out of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

A one-pager of the FIRE Act can be found here.

A section-by-section of the bill can be found here.

A transcript of Padilla’s remarks, as delivered, is below:

Thank you, Madame President, so I rise to discuss and explain the matter on which we just took action on. It is relative to wildfires. All across the western United States, historic wildfires continue to grow both more frequent and more severe.

Every year in recent years, entire communities have been destroyed by wildfires in a matter of hours. We’ve seen this in California, New Mexico, and Colorado. Families are forced to flee with only the belongings they can quickly pack into their vehicles.

Last year, I visited the incident command center in Quincy, California, to see firsthand the real time response to the devastating Dixie Fire. Separately, I met with local leaders in Santa Rosa, California to hear about problems with recovery from previous catastrophic wildfires.

So my bill, the bill we just took action on, the FEMA Improvement, Reform, and Efficiency Act – or the “FIRE Act” – will help ensure FEMA better addresses the unique and increasing danger of wildfires.

Now, FEMA’s current procedures and requirements don’t always work for post-wildfire recovery needs, and this bill will close those gaps. I give a lot of credit to FEMA they’ve gotten pretty good at anticipating and responding to other types of disasters, we’re seeing it as we speak with the hurricane impacting Florida, they do the same with tornadoes, floods, other disasters. In all these scenarios, we know that it begins with preparation.

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. When it’s hot, conditions are dry, and the winds kick up, it’s a recipe for disaster. And so to have FEMA be able to deploy in advance, just as they do already during hurricane warnings, as we’re seeing in Florida at this very moment, is a smart thing to do.

Then, as communities rebuild after a devastating wildfire, this bill will work to ensure that FEMA takes wildfire-specific issues into account, like melted infrastructure and burned trees. It will also help local governments work with FEMA to more effectively relocate critical infrastructure away from fire-prone areas. In the aftermath of a fire, the bill will help provide better housing assistance, case management, and crisis counseling for survivors, with a focus on equity for underserved communities and tribal governments. Often times these underserved communities and tribal governments suffer the disproportionate impact of these wildfires.

So with the FIRE Act, we will be able to better prepare for and respond to the unique challenges of wildfires in California and throughout the western United States.

The FIRE Act passed out of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs committee by voice vote on February 2nd of this year. I want to thank Chair Peters and Ranking member Portman and their staffs who contributed to this bill, as well as our partners at FEMA. 

This is an overdue, common-sense bill to help communities on the front lines of our wildfire crisis, and I thank my colleagues for joining me in supporting it. And with that Madame President, I yield the floor.


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