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Wildfires have burned over 5 million acres in the West. Are they too big for Washington to ignore?

Published on September 18, 2020 1:43 AM
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WASHINGTON ? With massive wildfires across the West burning more than 5 million acres and displacing tens of thousands of people, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon says this is the moment for Congress to reform the nation?s fire management policies, or brace for more Septembers like this one.
?I want to be able to call this the day the Senate got serious about fire prevention,? the Democratic senator said Monday in a floor speech.

Residents in California, Oregon and Washington ? many still under evacuation orders or living under a layer of smoke and ash ? will probably have to wait longer to see that day.

Feeling new urgency from a historic wildfire season, Western Republicans and Democrats have put forward legislative proposals for addressing the region?s forests, which are unnaturally overgrown thanks to decades of fire suppression.

The crisis has brought to the surface divisions among Democrats about how to address the problem ? rifts that are only likely to become more acute if Democrats win the presidency and the Senate next year, and push climate legislation through Congress.

On Thursday, Wyden unveiled his plan ? a set of changes that would require the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to use prescribed fire more frequently to preemptively burn off excess vegetation that can otherwise become tinder for out-of-control blazes. The bill would direct new federal funding to this effort, which has been held back by lack of money, limited manpower and risk-averse federal officials.

Another proposal, a bipartisan bill from Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.), presents a vastly different approach. It would create new exemptions to the nation?s bedrock environmental law, the National Environmental Policy Act, limiting public review of forestry projects to speed up the removal of small trees and shrubs.

It has been endorsed by both California Gov. Gavin Newsom and the American Forest Resource Council, a group that represents timber interests. But most environmental groups view it as an attempt to lock the public out of decision-making, and it?s likely to face resistance from progressive Democrats in the House.

?I don?t think the House of Representatives will support major new incursions into environmental laws right now,? said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael). ?That?s what the Senate bill is.?

House Democrats plan to vote next week on an energy bill that would promote electrical grid resilience efforts to reduce the likelihood of transmission lines starting fires. It would also require the Environmental Protection Agency to research the impact of smoke emissions from wildfire and provide grants to help communities mitigate the smoke. Several Democrats are hoping to ...

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