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What to Know About Landmark Wildfire Bills Led by California Congressman

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Two people walk through a smokey hillside.
Workers perform a prescribed burn on a private property in Penn Valley, a small, rural community in Nevada County, California, on June 22, 2023. The burn aims to reduce the brush and grasses that fuel megafires, while also helping to restore native plants to the region. (Erin Baldassari/KQED)

On Monday, Central Valley Rep. Josh Harder announced a package of wildfire bills, promising a “once-in-a-generation,” “first-of-its-kind,” “all-the-above” approach to addressing the nation’s wildfire issue.

The package focuses on four main areas:

1) Hiring and training more firefighters,
2) Retaining more firefighters with better benefits and working conditions,
3) Updating technology to improve fire response time,
4) Establishing a nationwide monitoring and alert system for wildfire smoke.

While there’s a lot the legislation promises, its true effect — if passed — will be how it’s applied.

Why it matters: In an era of human-caused climate change following a century of fire suppression, wildfire season in California is growing longer and more destructive, threatening our quality of life, health and housing affordability. Wildfire destruction has prompted a home insurance crisis that is affecting the ability of residents to live here.


And it’s not just the fires themselves that are dangerous; the smoke they produce travels far and wide and causes unseen deaths — a hazard for which there is currently no national-level alert program. Firefighter recruitment and retention have become a major problem, particularly for federal agencies like the U.S. Forest Service because the base pay can be extremely low, working conditions are brutal, and the cost of living is exorbitant.

The catch: For years, experts have cautioned that we’ll never be able to one-more-crew-of-firefighters our way out of this problem. What’s needed is to proactively prepare the landscape and communities for fire instead of focusing on quick suppression. A commission of 50 wildfire experts convened by Congress emphasized this need for proactivity and less reactivity in its final report released last September.

Harder, who introduced this package of bills explicitly to respond to the commission’s recommendations, seems aware of this.

“The biggest impediment to us being more proactive is our staffing shortages,” Harder said. “And if you talk to most of our fire departments [and] to the U.S. Forest Service, they’ll tell you that they want to be more proactive in addressing the vegetation and the overgrowth that’s happening. And they don’t have the people to do it. They also don’t always have the technology, and there’s often far too much red tape.”

All three of those bottlenecks are addressed in the package of bills, he said.

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The bottom line: If wildfire managers use increased staffing to focus only on putting out fires, then the boost in funding for firefighters will be a repeat of already failed policies.

Wildfire experts are, however, sure to welcome the increased attention on wildfire smoke, which is almost shockingly dangerous. In 2018, for example, wildfires officially killed 106 people in California, but UC Irvine researchers later estimated the true toll of wildfire smoke that year: 3,652 additional deaths and $150 billion in economic losses. From 2008 to 2018, more than 50,000 Californians died prematurely due to wildfire smoke, according to a study published Friday in the journal Science.

What’s next: The package of bills has been endorsed by a bipartisan group of representatives from around the country. Reps. Scott Franklin (R-Fla.) and Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) are also primary authors. Reps. Greg Stanton (D-Ariz.), Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena), John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove), and Val Hoyle (D-Ore.) are co-sponsoring the legislation.

Harder (D-Tracy), for his part, is optimistic about its chances:

“We took the recommendations that we thought could make it into law in a Republican House, a Democratic Senate with a Democratic president,” he said. “There were some things that some folks like that ended up on the cutting room floor because they weren’t supported by both parties.”

The full bill text is available here.

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