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Lawmakers push prevention measures ahead of new wildfire season

Lawmakers push prevention measures ahead of new wildfire season
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Lawmakers at a hearing on Tuesday called for greater investment in wildfire prevention efforts in response to a catastrophic 2017 and ahead of a new wildfire season.

During a hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management, Chairman Lou BarlettaLouis (Lou) James BarlettaFormer Trump officials eye bids for political office 10 bellwether counties that could signal where the election is headed Bottom Line MORE (R-Pa.) touted legislation that would put more of a focus on mitigation efforts to prevent wildfires from starting.

“The focus of the [Disaster Recovery Reform Act] and the Smart Rebuilding Act is to place emphasis on pre-disaster mitigation to help ensure that our communities are well-equipped to withstand disasters of all kinds,” Barletta said.

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“There is a clear return on mitigation. For every 1 dollar spent on mitigation, the taxpayer says 6 to 8 dollars.”

The new push comes after one of the worst wildfires season in U.S. history, with more than 66,000 fires nationwide burned in 2017 over 9.6 million acres of land. High winds and dry land caused wildfires to rage across the West Coast, creating the most destructive and costliest fire season in California’s history alone.

“The rebuilding that must be done in the wake of these wildfires provides an important opportunity to encourage smart, resilient rebuilding, increase mitigation measures and cost-effective federal investments,” Barletta said.  

Witnesses testified to the subcommittee that investing in pre-disaster mitigation is the best way to prevent similar destruction.

“The wildfire season has reinforced what we know: building more resilient communities is the best way to reduce the risks to people, property, public budgets and the economy,” Robert Fenton, regional administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said.

“Developing capacity before an incident occurs reduces the loss of life and economic disruption.”

According to Fenton, effective mitigation projects include creating defensible perimeters around building and structures, informing the public on the fire hazards of overgrown and uncontrolled vegetation, investing in ignition-resistant construction and reducing the use of hazardous fuels.

“While we’ll never be able to completely eliminate risk, we must do our best to mitigate against it,” Fenton told lawmakers.

Mitigation programs can also counter the escalating cost and damages of wildfires.

“2017 was a record year in which the federal government spent $2.9 billion on wildland fire suppression,” Thomas Jenkins, president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, told the panel. “Our nation cannot continue to absorb these growing costs.”

Barletta's Disaster Recovery Reform Act was approved by his subcommittee in November.