Wyden Presses Interior and USDA on Making Sure Oregon is Equipped with Funding and Workforce Needed for Wildfire Season
Ahead of this week’s ENR Committee hearing on Forest Service Budget, Wyden asks the agencies how wildfire funding from infrastructure law is being distributed and their plans to make sure firefighting workforce needs are met for this year's wildfire season
Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, D-Ore., today asked the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Department of Agriculture about the agencies' plans to make sure Oregon is equipped with the firefighting workforce and funding it needs to meet the demands of another potentially catastrophic wildfire season. Wyden's questions come ahead of this Thursday’s U.S. Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee hearing on the Forest Service budget, where Wyden — a senior committee member — plans to raise these issues.
"Oregon is still struggling to rebuild after two, back-to-back horrific fire seasons. . . . Another fire season like this would further devastate our communities as well as our firefighters, who risk their lives and tear themselves away from their homes and families every summer to protect Oregon’s treasured landscapes," Wyden wrote Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "I have heard in years past that agencies needed resources — in terms of funding and workforce- to better position and prepare for the wildfire season. With the passage of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) in November 2021, your departments received this much-needed support. Now, more than six months after being given this new flexibility, we are past time for action."
Wyden — who was briefed last week in Bend on preparations for the fire season ahead — also urged the agencies "to bring wildland firefighters the pay rates, career development, and health care, especially mental health, support they deserve." He also asked for "increased partnership and coordination with state and local fire response — including local fire departments who often bear the brunt of community coordination when wildfires move into the wildland-urban interface, and an emphasis on effective and efficient fuels treatments near communities and vital natural resources."
To make sure Oregon's needs are met for this year's wildfire season, Wyden asked for answers to the following questions:
- Please provide an update with specifics on how the wildfire prevention and suppression funds from the IIJA have been allocated and dispersed to the field thus far, including how the funding amounts to each region were determined.
- How many acres in Oregon will be treated using funds authorized by IIJA? Following this and related investments, how many acres will need to be treated to address the hazardous fuels backlog on the landscape?
- How do your departments plan on achieving these strategies when there are 20% vacancy rates for permanent wildland fire positions in Oregon? What plans are in place to fill these positions? What areas of Oregon have been identified as “difficult to recruit” and have any of your agencies used IIJA hiring incentives? If not, will you use those incentives this summer?
- How do you plan on retaining and reforming your workforce structure in light of the ever increasing length of wildfire season - coupled with the increased goals of fuel treatment acres?
- What is the status of the distinct ‘Wildland Firefighter occupational series? When can we expect that to be rolled out so these brave people can be recognized and compensated for putting their lives on the line every summer – instead of being labeled as a Forestry Technician?
- What additional steps have your departments and agencies taken to prevent another season where interagency requests for wildland firefighting crews and engines go unfilled due to insufficient personnel?
- How have your departments and agencies coordinated with local fire departments in Oregon in preparation for the 2022 fire season?
A copy of the letter is here.
Nicole L’Esperance (202) 224-5244
For Immediate Release: June 7, 2022
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