Wednesday, at a Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee hearing, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) questioned U.S. Forest Service Deputy Chief Chris French about wildfire mitigation and preparation and asked him about how smoke forecasting can be used to support communities impacted by the fires.
“We are at over 600,000 acres burned [in Washington state], with 300,000 of those acres burning in just one day,” Cantwell said. “This isn’t a new story to us, we obviously have been through this very intense fire years for several years in a row… So that’s what’s happening: record fire seasons.”
In her questions for French, Cantwell asked about the importance of smoke forecasting and how it helps inform wildfire risk assessments and communication with communities. In his response, he referenced Cantwell’s Wildfire Management Technology Advancement Act of 2017, which was signed into law last year. Among other technology the legislation makes available to firefighters and communities, it requires smoke forecasters be assigned to all large wildfires to provide accurate information to everyone impacted.
“It’s been a great help. The Department of Agriculture and Department of the Interior have been using many aspects that came out of the law to really focus on how we use technology differently,” French said. “In terms of air quality, what sorts of changes do we need to make in terms of movements of people, where do we need to put resources, those sorts of things. We’ve also been working very much on ground-based image technology to understand where we’re seeing shifts and changes in fires and where to put resources associated with that.
“We have an RC-26 aircraft that has a distributed real-time infrared capability, that’s from the 141st Air Refueling Wing up in Washington Air National Guard. And that’s been deployed in support of wildland fire operation to provide a number of these services. We’re on track right now for awarding a contract for… wildland firefighters. And we’re also using some of the technology advances for our smoke jumpers, to be able to drop things into areas more precisely than we’ve done before. And all of that has come from the focus that came out of the passage of that legislation.”
Cantwell also asked French about how these technologies can be used to improve wildfire management and response moving forward, as well as about the need for more firefighters to combat fires throughout the western United States.
Senator Cantwell has been a congressional leader on wildfire management for years. In addition to her wildfire technology bill, Cantwell worked with her colleagues to secure a $1.6 billion increase in funding for wildland management in December 2019. In 2018 she secured passage of language to fix the chronic failures in wildfire funding that had long plagued fire-prone communities across the west. Earlier this year, she pressed witnesses at a hearing about wildfire season preparations and rolling out new technologies. She has also repeatedly called on officials to make combating wildfires and protecting firefighters a top priority, including as preparations for the 2020 wildfire season continue amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.