Harris Introduces Comprehensive Legislation to Protect Communities from Growing Threat of Wildfires
WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris (D-CA) on Friday announced the Wildfire Defense Act, comprehensive legislation to help communities—especially in California—implement science-based methods for mitigating wildfire damage and defending life and property. Harris’ bill would provide local communities with up to $10 million dollars to implement a Community Wildfire Defense Plan to ensure they are resilient in the face of the growing wildfire threat before disaster strikes.
Companion legislation will also be introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA).
This year, hundreds of thousands of Californians have been forced to evacuate due to the threat of wildfires and over 2 million experienced pre-emptive power shutoffs. Last year, California experienced the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in its history, contributing to a U.S. record of $24 billion spent in wildfire response and recovery in 2018. For every one dollar invested in mitigating the impacts of disasters, the United States saves six dollars in response and recovery after a disaster.
“As the climate crisis creates the conditions for more widespread and intense wildfires than ever before, Californians must not be made to fight alone,” said Senator Harris. “As we continue to combat climate change and address other root causes of these fires, we must also invest in our communities and provide them with the resources to strengthen their readiness. We know that more fires are coming, and we know what works to keep communities safe and help firefighters do their jobs—so let’s take action to get it done.”
“Over the past two decades, wildfires have caused enormous devastation across my district and all of California; crippling communities and businesses while decimating vast swaths of the unique California wilderness,” said Representative Huffman. “Although we are still faced with higher risks due to the effects of the climate crisis, there is still a great deal we can do to prepare our communities for these events and mitigate the infrastructural failures that cause catastrophic fires. In order to protect our communities from the growing threat of widespread wildfires, we must implement strategies and resources commensurate with those provided to victims of other natural disasters.”
The Wildfire Defense Act would invest $1 billion per year to:
- Establish guidelines for communities to conceptualize new Community Wildfire Defense Plans (CWDP) that are developed in coordination with community members, first responders, and relevant state agencies. CWDPs will focus on implementing strategies and activities relating to:
- Improving evacuations and access for first responders
- Addressing vulnerable populations, including the elderly, those with disabilities, and the homeless
- Hardening critical infrastructure and homes
- Applying defensible space to create a buffer between communities and the forest
- Deploying distributed energy resources like microgrids with battery storage
- Educating community members
- Provide grants of up to $250,000 to develop a CWDP and grants of up to $10 million to implement a CWDP
- Grants will be prioritized for low-income communities that are in a wildfire hazard area and communities recently impacted by a major wildfire
- Study how a CWDP could be used as certification for insurance companies assessing a community resilience.
- Complete a report on all federal authorities and programs to protect communities from wildfires.
“This bill rightly recognizes that we need to create and support fire-smart communities; we need community scale planning, education and funding to implement safety measures. Becoming fire smart is vital to protecting our neighbors and first responders,” said Sierra Club Deputy Legislative Director Kirin Kennedy.
“Combatting these fires requires effective planning, science-based strategies and serious funding from Congress. Communities need assistance to reduce dry vegetation adjacent to homes and incorporate fire resistant materials in new construction if they are near burn-prone areas. Senator Harris’ Wildfire Defense Act focuses on the right solutions in the right places to keep people and property safe,” said Daniel Rossman, California Deputy Director, The Wilderness Society
“Senator Harris’ Wildfire Defense Act comes at a critical juncture,” said Susan Jane Brown, Public Lands Director and staff attorney for the Western Environmental Law Center in Portland, Oregon. “As in many places in the west, the State of Oregon is in the process of developing recommendations for community preparedness in response to increasing wildfire risk. The Wildfire Defense Act will support those efforts by creating essential programs and providing the necessary funding to make our wildland urban interface communities safer.”
"This bill is the smart approach to containing wildfires and combating climate change," said Blaine Miller-McFeeley, senior legislative representative at Earthjustice. "Instead of handing more favors to big logging companies like the Trump administration and its allies in Congress want, it invests in communities' resiliency, enhances coordination among governments, and prioritizes sustainable forestry policies that benefit all of us. We commend Senator Harris for her work on this legislation and urge her colleagues to join her in support of it."
“We applaud Senator Harris for taking a thoughtful, science-based approach to addressing wildfires and community safety,” said Randi Spivak, public lands director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This is a smart bill that focuses resources where they’ll do the most good. It’s a refreshing change from knee-jerk, uninformed proposals that push for increased logging and weaken environmental laws under the guise of public safety.”
“As a community recovering from the devastating effects of the October 2017 Northern California Firestorm, Santa Rosa has seen firsthand how quickly a wildfire carried by high winds can move into an urban area and take dozens of lives and destroy thousands of homes in a matter of hours,” said City of Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner. “Our community, like many others across California, knows what actions we need to take to be better ready to respond to this new normal, but we desperately need new resources to help get there. The Wildfire Defense Act proposes to advance this work in a strategic and meaningful way and is a big step in the right direction to help better protect life and property from future fire threats within wildfire-prone communities.”
“Living in a community at severe risk of wildfire, we know that hardening structures and investing in water infrastructure for firefighting is critical to the survival of our community and our precious natural resources in the Lake Tahoe Basin,” said John Thiel – General Manager, South Tahoe Public Utility District
On Wednesday, Harris introduced the Accountability for Utility Executives Act, legislation to ensure that publicly-traded utility companies going through bankruptcy—like PG&E—cannot reward their executives with bonuses or trips. Harris also confirmed with FEMA that Pre-Disaster Mitigation can be used toward microgrid infrastructure that would help communities be more resilient to large-scale blackouts.
For further background, click here.
For full bill text, click here.
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