May 20, 2021

Wyden, Manchin, Cantwell, Feinstein Introduce Legislation to Help Prevent Catastrophic Wildfires

Bill would support pre-fire season controlled burns as an essential, science-based strategy for reducing hazardous fuels to mitigate the worst effects of wildfires

Wyden made the case for his legislation today during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on forest management. Click here to watch.

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., today reintroduced legislation that would help prevent the blistering and destructive infernos from destroying homes, businesses and livelihoods and becoming more frequent as the climate crisis grows.

The National Prescribed Fire Act of 2021 would support pre-fire season controlled burns as an essential, science-based strategy for reducing hazardous fuels to mitigate the worst effects of severe wildfire. The legislation would increase the pace and scale of controlled burns, create a technically skilled preseason controlled burn workforce, and give states more flexibility to regulate controlled burns in winter months to reduce catastrophic fires and dangerous smoke in the summer. 

“In this era of climate crisis, the question is not ‘if an acre of forest will burn,’ it's ‘when.’ The wildland firefighters I’ve spoken with would rather have that acre burn in the cooler, wetter months, with firefighters at the ready, rather than scrambling to fight a wildfire that ignites on the hottest, driest, windiest days of the year in the backyards of our rural neighbors,” Wyden said. “Wildfire season is starting earlier, lasting longer and destroying more of our treasured natural spaces, homes and businesses, not to mention killing people trapped in the blazes. Preventative measures, like targeted controlled fires to burn off hazardous fuels, is one key tool to lessen the hurt caused by these massive fires.”

“Every year, wildfires that impact communities across the country continue to worsen. They’re burning longer and they’re getting harder to control than they were just a few years ago, largely due to climate change, lack of forest management, and new housing developments in rural, fire-prone areas. That is why I am pleased to cosponsor this bill today. This legislation is a much-needed proactive solution, and the tools provided will ensure that we can better avoid these increasingly common, destructive wildfires. I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to ensure this legislation becomes law,” said Senator Manchin, Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“The National Prescribed Fire Act of 2021 will improve the health of our forests and lands, mitigate wildfire risks, and help make our communities safer. This bill more than doubles the funding for controlled burns to reduce hazardous wildfire fuels and addresses the cumbersome requirements to burn outside the fire season," said Cantwell.

“Climate change is making wildfires more frequent, more severe and more dangerous," said Feinstein. "Prescribed burns are one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce the hazardous fuels that can lead to catastrophic fires. Expanding the use of prescribed burns will lower the risk for large wildfires and save lives.”

In 2018, the Forest Service determined that 234 million acres of forest are at a high risk of dangerous wildfires. Yet, controlled burns treated barely 1 percent of that total – only 3 million acres annually during the last decade. Federal land managers should be equipped to get ahead of the problem, especially as the climate crisis worsens. Unfortunately, because vegetation grows continuously, the Forest Service will never be able to address the current hazardous fuels backlog at its current pace. Controlled burns are an important forest management tool used to prevent severe fires before they start. Moreover, controlled burns, on average, emit just one-fifth of the smoke of wildfires. In the face of the climate emergency, prescribed fire and other science-based forestry tools are more important than ever to protect our forests so they can continue to provide clean air, clean water and wildlife habitat.

The National Prescribed Fire Act of 2021:

  • Establishes $300 million accounts for both the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior (DOI) to plan, prepare and conduct controlled burns on federal, state and private lands.
  • Requires the Forest Service and DOI to increase the number of acres treated with controlled burns.
  • Establishes a $10 million collaborative program, based on the successful Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, to implement controlled burns on county, state and private land at high risk of burning in a wildfire.
  • Establishes an incentive program to provide funding to state, county and federal agencies for any large-scale controlled burn.
  • Establishes a workforce development program at the Forest Service and DOI to develop, train and hire prescribed fire practitioners, and establishes employment programs for Tribes, veterans, women and those formerly incarcerated.
  • Requires state air quality agencies to use current laws and regulations to allow larger controlled burns, and give states more flexibility in winter months to conduct controlled burns that reduce catastrophic smoke events in the summer.

U.S. Rep. Kim Schrier, D-Wash., introduced companion legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives and it was cosponsored by U.S. Reps. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and Kurt Schrader, D-Ore.

“With each successive year, wildfires have gotten worse throughout the West, destroying our communities and public lands. This year, there have already been more than 200 fires in Washington State, and wildfire season has only just begun,” said Schrier. “During the off-season, it is crucial that we work to mitigate the potential for future wildfire and improve forest health in order to protect our communities. That’s why I’m so proud to partner with Senator Wyden to introduce legislation to support pre-fire season controlled burns as an essential, science-based strategy for reducing hazardous fuels to mitigate the worst effects of wildfire.”

A one-page summary of the bill is available here.

A section-by-section summary of the bill available here.

Bill text is available here.

National Association of Counties Executive Director Matthew Chase: “As counties work tirelessly with our federal, state and local partners to fight historic wildland fires, we welcome the introduction of the National Prescribed Fire Act. This legislation will improve federal public lands management and create a collaborative system to ensure that counties have access to necessary funding for urgent forest health activities. We thank Senators Wyden, Manchin, Feinstein and Cantwell for sponsoring this legislation and call on Congress to pass it as swiftly as possible.”

Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology Executive Director Timothy Ingalsbee: “This legislation is long overdue but extremely timely. Prescribed fire is the safest, most effective, efficient, and economical tool for influencing wildfire behavior. Ask any firefighter on the firelines today and they will admit that they would much rather be lighting fires under the best weather conditions than fighting fires under the worst conditions.”

National Alliance of Forest Owners President and CEO Dave Tenny: “We applaud Senators Wyden, Manchin, Cantwell, and Feinstein for reintroducing the National Prescribed Fire Act.  This commonsense bill supports prescribed burns as an essential, science-based strategy for reducing the risk of severe wildfire.  As our climate changes, an all-of-the-above approach is needed to optimize forest health and productivity, improve forest resilience, and proactively manage for wildfire risk.  Active forest management strategies, like prescribed fire, thinning, vegetation control, harvesting, and tree planting are proven by both science and experience to work.  We look forward to working with Senators Wyden, Manchin, Cantwell, and Feinstein and their Senate colleagues to advance policy that embraces scientifically-proven active forest management strategies to increase forest health, productivity and resilience, reduce the risk of severe wildfire, and proactively protect our homes, businesses and communities.”

Weyerhaeuser Vice President of Corporate and Government Affairs Kristen Sawn: “Severe wildfire is a growing reality that we must address, especially on the West Coast where catastrophic wildfires have devastated lives, communities and forests. Controlled burns are an important part of a larger strategy to better manage public lands for forest health, resilience and fire risk. Because wildfire crosses boundaries – decisions about how to manage public forests impacts neighboring private forests and communities. As a private landowner and neighbor to federal forests – we support this legislation that would promote this science-based and historically utilized practice as a tool to better manage our public lands.”

Lone Rock Resources President and CEO Toby Luther: “The rural forest communities where we live and work have been neglected by the federal government for far too long.  Prescribed fire is one of the many tools needed to actively manage these forests and protect our rural communities in the west.  We commend Senators Wyden, Cantwell, Manchin and Feinstein in taking this needed step and encouraged them to continue their endeavors to increase active management of federal forestlands. “ 

National Association of State Foresters President, Arkansas State Forester, Joe Fox: “There is an immediate need for the return of low intensity fire to our landscapes. Prescribed fire, applied appropriately by professionals, reduces dangerously dense vegetation that fuels catastrophic wildfires. Many forests also need fire to regenerate and thrive. Prescribed fire promotes resilient forested ecosystems by simulating natural disturbance for enhanced age class and species diversity, as well as improved native wildlife habitat and plant growth. In the simplest terms, the National Prescribed Fire Act offers a legislative solution to increase the use of prescribed fire. With this bill, state foresters would be able to maximize their utilization of controlled burns to enhance forest health while minimizing damages and mega smoke emissions from catastrophic wildfires. It is a win-win-win for forests, wildland fire management, and public health.”

Defenders of Wildlife Director of Federal Lands Peter Nelson: “To conserve and restore our forests in the era of climate change, we must take a different approach to managing fire. This legislation from Senators Wyden, Manchin, Cantwell and Feinstein would give agencies the tools to use ‘good fire’ to make our forests, communities, watersheds and wildlife habitat more resilient.”

Vaagen Timbers Founder & CEO Russ Vaagen (Sustainable NW Board Member and past President of the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition): “The fires raging in the west remind us that we must act on our public lands. They have been neglected for far too long. This includes prescribed fire, but our forests need comprehensive forest restoration activity to get them back into a condition that can handle wildfire and other challenges that they face. Forests have become a carbon source, but with steps like the prescribed fire bill we can start the process of turning our forests back into carbon sinks.”

Iron Triangle LLC, Zach Williams: “The science is pretty clear that a combination of mechanical treatment and prescribed fire is necessary to get our forests into a more historical condition and sustain in the face of insects, disease and catastrophic wildfire. We need a bigger management and investment solution that includes support for resource management agencies, forest products businesses, other contractors, and the use of prescribed fire.” 

Intertribal Timber Council President Cody Desautel: “This legislation gives tribal land managers more flexibility to return fire to the land where needed, restoring landscape resiliency, and minimizing public risk from future fires.”

Earthjustice Senior Legislative Representative Blaine Miller-McFeeley: “We must immediately act to protect communities from wildfires like those currently devastating the West. In addition to aggressive action on climate change, this bill focuses on science based activities like increasing controlled burns, which can protect our communities in a sustainable manner, instead of handing more favors to big logging companies like the Trump administration and its allies in Congress want. We commend Senator Wyden, Senator Manchin, Senator Cantwell and Senator Feinstein for their work on this legislation.”

Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians Chairman Dan Courtney: “Managing with fire as a tool has been a critical part of the Cow Creek Umpqua Tribe’s management strategy since time immemorial.  Our ancestors saw the benefits of managing with fire years ago and we see the same benefits today. We are grateful for the leadership of Senator Wyden, Senator Cantwell, Senator Manchin and Senator Feinstein as we all work to restore much needed balance to our forests.” 

Oregon State Senator Jeff Golden, Chair, Oregon Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources: “Southwest Oregon is reeling from catastrophic wildfire and laser-focused on recovery. We know we can't do this alone, and Senator Wyden's legislation shows that he does, too. His prescribed burn plan draws a practical roadmap to healthy landscapes and safer communities across our state.  It’s our solemn responsibility to come together to meet this challenge. We can do this.”

Oregon State Representative Pam Marsh: “This horrific fire season has been a brutal reminder of the need to stabilize our forests, and prescriptive burning is a critical tool in that work.  The proposed legislation from Senator Wyden, Senator Cantwell, Senator Manchin and Senator Feinstein will help us fund and implement programs that use prescriptive burning as a critical strategy to stabilize forests and protect nearby communities. Given the exacerbating impact of climate change on the landscape, prescriptive burning is key to the long term viability of our southern Oregon communities.”  

The South Gifford Pinchot Collaborative’s Joshua Petit: “The South Gifford Pinchot Collaborative (SGPC) appreciates the efforts by Senators Wyden, Cantwell, Manchin and Feinstein to enact the National Prescribed Fire Act of 2020 (NPFA). This bill clearly reflects the mission statement and guiding principles of our organization, and underscores a need for increased prescribed burning on federal lands in the western US. Prescribed burning makes our forests more healthy and resilient, protects private property and valued recreation resources, and promotes economic vitality within rural and resource-dependent communities. Prescribed burning and other wildfire mitigation strategies have never been so relevant and the time to allocate funding to these activities is now. We thank the Senators’ for their proactive efforts so future generations may benefit from, and enjoy, our cherished public lands!”

Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition Policy Analyst Tyson Bertone-Riggs: “This bill provides a strategic framework and much needed resources to build on the prescribed fire work that has long been championed by rural community-based organizations. The West needs a new management paradigm for wildfire – one where we proactively build ecological and social resilience, rather than reactively managing annual crises. The Senators’ bill invests in all the right things, and recognizes the importance of collaborative, cross-boundary solutions.”

Wallowa Resources Executive Director Nils Christopherson: waiting. “The last century of forest management and fire exclusion has dramatically altered the fire adapted forests of the intermountain west.  Combined with climate change, these forests face elevated fire risks across millions of acres. Prescribed fire is an essential tool to respond to this challenge. This bill invites rural partners to work hand-in-hand with federal managers. We need a collaborative prescribed fire effort and all-lands restoration incentive programs to drive this urgent work. This bill is a critical shift from crisis management to the proactive, resilience-building work that our rural communities need.”

Lomakatsi Restoration Project Executive Director Marko Bey: “Controlled burning, combined with ecological thinning, is an essential tool for treating the millions of acres of overly-dense forest lands in urgent need of restoration across the West. A trusted technique proven by the latest science and millennia of successful land stewardship by indigenous peoples, carefully applied prescribed fire is a cost-effective and ecologically-sound way to reduce risks of severe wildfire and help protect communities while also enhancing wildlife habitat. The National Prescribed Fire Act would greatly increase the capacity of agencies, tribes, and nonprofit organizations—such as Lomakatsi—who are already applying controlled burns, while also encouraging new operations, training opportunities, and a cultural shift back to more proactive land stewardship for the mutual benefit of forests and communities.”

Southern Willamette Forest Collaborative Coordinator, Sarah Altemus-Pope, JD/MS Conflict Resolution: “We know that we need to increase the use of prescribed fire for forest health and to protect communities from catastrophic wildfires. The bill from Senator Wyden, Senator Manchin, Senator Cantwell, and Senator Feinstein invests in restoring forests by creating a robust sector of skilled fire practitioners to reestablish fire cycles, remove hazardous fuels, and protect communities. We cannot do this work without a highly trained, year-round workforce, and I’m heartened to see such a comprehensive piece of legislation address this very pressing need.”

Watershed Research & Training Center Executive Director Nick Goulette: “The evidence is abundantly clear – we must seriously commit ourselves to a strategic and expanded use of prescribed fire to interrupt this now-annual occurrence of mega fire in the West. This bill -- from Senator Wyden, Manchin, Cantwell, and Feinstein -- is a critical step towards prioritizing and funding this work by focusing on supporting smart alliances between federal agencies, state and tribal governments, and local partners. Only through this heightened focus, and with more diverse hands pitching in, are we going to be able to scale prescribed fire where it matters most.” 

University of Oregon Research Professor and Senior Policy Advisor of Ecosystem Workforce Program Cassandra Moseley: “Science has made clear that we need to get more fire on the ground at the right place and time. This bill addresses workforce limitations and fosters interagency collaboration that research has shown are barriers to prescribed fire.”

Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center (Ashland, Ore.) Executive Director Michael Dotson: “Fire plays an integral role in the ecosystems of the west, and Indigenous Tribes used fire as a tool for millennia. With climate fires now burning up our towns, we desperately need to use fire as a tool in the cool, wet seasons to make our landscape less fire prone in the hot, dry summer months.”

Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative’s Terry Fairbanks: “Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative supports this bill because of its focus on returning fire to the landscape. This is a well-conceived, ecologically sound addition to forest management. This bill recognizes practices, safeguards and incentives that are needed to make prescribed fire a common management tool. Successful integration of prescribed fire as a forest practice will protect communities and critical forest habitat, create jobs, and train and incorporate underrepresented groups into firefighting positions.”

The Longleaf Alliance President Carol Denhof: “The Longleaf Alliance is proud to work closely with Burner Bob® , A Cool Dude with a Hot Message®, to advocate for using Good Fires to prevent Bad Fires. By using prescribed fire to manage forests that have historically burned naturally at regular intervals, we are able to control the narrative and greatly reduce the risk of wildfire to our communities.”