House approves bill to help West fight wildfires, drought

The House on Friday approved wide-ranging legislation aimed at helping communities in the West cope with increasingly severe wildfires and drought -- fueled by climate change -- that have caused billions of dollars of damage to homes and businesses in recent years. 

The measure combines 49 separate bills and would increase firefighter pay and benefits; boost resiliency and mitigation projects for communities affected by climate change; protect watersheds; and make it easier for wildfire victims to get federal assistance. 

"Across America the impacts of climate change continue to worsen, and in this new normal, historic droughts and record-setting wildfires have become all too common," said Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., the bill's chief co-sponsor. 

"What once were wildfire seasons are now wildfire years. For families across the country who have lost their homes due to these devastating wildfires and for the neighborhoods impacted by drought, we know that we need to apply a whole-of-government approach to support community recovery and bolster environmental resiliency," Neguse said. "This is a bill that we believe meets the moment for the West."

The bill was approved, 218-199, as firefighters in California battled a blaze that forced evacuation of thousands of people near Yosemite National Park and crews in North Texas sought to contain another fire. 

It now goes to the Senate.

The bill's centerpiece would permanently boost pay and benefits for federal wildland firefighters. President Joe Biden signed a measure last month giving them a hefty raise for the next two years, a move that affects more than 16,000 firefighters and comes as much of the West braces for another difficult wildfire season. 

Pay raises for the federal firefighters had been included in last year's $1 trillion infrastructure bill, but the money was held up as federal agencies studied recruitment and retention data to decide where to deliver them. The raise approved by Biden was retroactive to Oct. 1, 2021, and expires Sept. 30, 2023.

The House bill would make the pay raises permanent and sets minimum pay for federal wildland firefighters at $20 per hour, or nearly $42,000 a year. It also raises eligibility for hazardous-duty pay and boosts mental health and other services for firefighters. The bill is named after smokejumper Tim Hart, who died fighting a wildfire in New Mexico last year.

"The West is hot -- hotter than ever -- it is dry and when it is windy, the West is on fire," said Rep. Kim Schrier, D-Wash. "And we are seeing this every year because of climate change. That's why this bill is so important." 

The legislation "will protect the West by addressing water shortages and protecting our forests and addressing the needs of our firefighters," Schrier said. 

Republicans denounced the measure as "political messaging," noting that firefighters' hourly pay has already been increased above $20 in most cases. The House bill does not appropriate additional money for the Forest Service or other agencies, and without such an increase, the Forest Service says it would have to lay off about 470 wildland firefighters.

Rep. Bruce Westerman of Arkansas, the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, called it "egregious" that Democrats would seek to enact provisions that could lead to firefighter layoffs in the midst of a devastating wildfire season.

"Democrats are finally waking up to the wildfire and drought crises, exacerbated by years of forest mismanagement and a lack of long-term water storage. Unfortunately, Democrats' proposals are anything but solutions," Westerman said. He accused Democrats of failing to follow science showing the need to manage forests before fires begin, and said Democrats "fail to construct the kind of long-term infrastructure needed to make communities resilient to drought" while prioritizing "liberal talking points" about climate change.

Neguse called that accusation outrageous and noted that many of the bills included in the wildfire/drought legislation are Republican proposals.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the bill was important to the whole country -- not just the West, where wildfires and drought are a daily reality.

"We are one nation indivisible and if one part of us is burning, we are all burning," Hoyer said.

Besides boosting firefighter pay, the bill enhances forest management projects intended to reduce hazardous fuels such as small trees and underbrush that can make wildfires far more dangerous. It also establishes grant programs to help communities affected by air pollution from wildfires and improve watersheds damaged by wildfire.

Republicans called the thinning projects -- which also include prescribed burns and removal of vegetation -- meaningless without waivers of lengthy environmental reviews that can delay forest treatment by years.

The White House said in a statement that it supports efforts to address climate change, wildfires and drought, but wants to "work with the Congress to ensure the many provisions in the (bill) avoid duplication with existing authorities and administration efforts.?