Thursday, U.S. Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA), a senior member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, and James E. Risch (R-ID), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, sent a letter to President Trump asking him to request urgently needed assistance from foreign fire agencies to help combat historic wildfires raging throughout the Western United States.
The 2020 wildfire season has been one of the worst in more than two decades. According to the most recent Incident Management Situation Report from the National Interagency Coordination Center in Boise, Idaho, this year’s wildfires have already burned 5,864,950 acres. The fires have killed dozens of Americans, destroyed thousands of structures, and displaced thousands. Currently as many as 87 fires are still burning across 11 states, shrouding much of the western United States in toxic levels of smoke. According to data collected by Europe’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS), this year’s fire season has been “tens to hundreds of times more intense” than the average fire seasons from 2003 to 2019.
Firefighting experts are expressing alarm about overworked domestic fire crews and a potential decrease in the number of firefighters that will be available on the front lines in the coming months. According to a memo issued earlier this week by the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group, a council of government officials and incident commanders that helps allocate fire-fighting resources, “it is likely that resource availability will continue to be severely limited nationally through the month of September and well into the fall.”
“With wildfires burning hotter, faster, and more frequently than ever before, our overworked frontline firefighting teams need backup from our allies that have the experience and grit to help tackle these historic blazes. Firefighting crews from Australia, Canada, and Israel have already provided a big boost to efforts across the West, but more personnel are desperately needed,” the senators wrote.
Earlier today, Senator Cantwell spoke on the Senate floor about the need for more resources and international firefighting assistance: “COVID has impacted our ability to fight fire. So I’m calling on the president to help us reach out to the international community to help us getting more firefighters into the United States.” And during Wednesday’s Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee hearing, Cantwell questioned U.S. Forest Service Deputy Chief Chris French about wildfire mitigation and preparation and asked him about how smoke forecasting could be used to support communities impacted by the fires.
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.
The full text of the letter is available below and HERE.
Dear President Trump:
Supercharged wildfires are causing untold suffering throughout the West. This year’s fires have already burned over five million acres of beloved landscape, destroyed whole communities, killed dozens of Americans, and displaced thousands of our constituents. Millions are struggling to breathe the smoky air that is smothering our population centers with the world’s worst air quality that permeates seemingly every structure and vehicle. And this fire season is nowhere near over.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made this year’s challenging situation much harder. Not only do health concerns make it more difficult to provide shelter for evacuees, it has drastically reduced the number of firefighters available to combat these infernos. Even prison work crews who normally pitch in to tackle annual wildfires have been sidelined by efforts to curb the spread of the disease.
We write to ask you to use your authority under the Wildfire Suppression Assistance Act (P.L. 100-428) to request urgently needed assistance from foreign fire agencies. With wildfires burning hotter, faster, and more frequently than ever before, our overworked frontline firefighting teams need backup from our allies that have the experience and grit to help tackle these historic blazes. Firefighting crews from Australia, Canada, and Israel have already provided a big boost to efforts across the West, but more personnel are desperately needed.
Thank you for your attention and timely response to these urgent matters.