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U.S. House passes major wildfire and drought package

View above the Black Fire on May 16, 2022 (National Wildfire Coordinating Group)
Republicans call for more logging to thin forests

The U.S. House approved, 218-199, on Friday a massive package of bills to address the growing threat of wildfire and drought in the West.

The measure includes 49 standalone bills from both Democrats and Republicans. It includes provisions to make permanent an increase in wildland firefighter pay, lift a cap on the federal cost share for post-fire recovery funding and authorize more than $1.5 billion for water infrastructure to help manage drought conditions.

Republicans said the spending would not meaningfully improve fire prevention and called for allowing more logging to thin forests.

There were 217 Democrats who voted in favor of the bill, and one Republican. One Democrat was opposed and 198 Republicans.

The package’s future is unclear. The White House issued a statement that fell short of full support and members of the Senate have not indicated they would take up the legislation.

Colorado Democrat Joe Neguse, the chairman of a House subcommittee on public lands and forestry, sponsored the omnibus measure and led debate on the floor Friday.

In the last two years, three catastrophic wildfires have devastated parts Neguse’s Boulder-area district, he said on the House floor Friday. Responding to such events now takes up much of his and other congressional offices’ time.

“We have a duty to provide our constituents with the support that they need to rebuild and to recover,” Neguse said. “The reality is that we are living with a new normal as climate change results in a hotter, drier planet where historic drought and record setting wildfires are not merely a possibility, but an inevitability.”

Wildfires have devastated New Mexico as well this year, with the Forest Service blamed for the largest wildfire in the state’s recorded history.

Firefighter pay

Neguse highlighted the firefighter pay measure, which would indefinitely extend a raise to a minimum of $20 per hour enacted in last year’s $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law. Without congressional action, the raise would expire at the end of September 2023.

The package also includes a Neguse bill to allow the Federal Emergency Management Agency to lift the cap on the federal share of fire assistance grants. The cap is currently 75%, but the bill would direct FEMA to determine circumstances when the federal share could be higher.

The measure would ratify a 10-year plan for the U.S. Forest Service, authorizing $1.5 billion per year for the next decade for fire-related programs. It would also authorize spending on large scale forest projects the administration has already identified.

Those projects include the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, known as 4FRI, and Greater Prescott Area Wildlife Protection and Restoration in Arizona, the Colorado Front Range, Southwest Idaho, the Kootenai Complex in Montana, the Enchanted Circle in New Mexico and Central Oregon.

The package also includes several water bills, including a measure to provide $1 billion for tribal water infrastructure grants.

The bill would authorize $700 million more for a water-recycling project created in the infrastructure law.

New Mexico Democrat Melanie Stansbury sponsored three water bills, including bills to authorize $500 million to help keep Colorado River Basin reservoirs from declining to critical levels and to establish a management plan for the Rio Grande Basin.

The package would also establish a National Disaster Safety Board to collect data on natural disasters and provide recommendations to prevent future loss of life. It would create another board to study wildfire impacts and the effects of climate change on fires.