Wyden warns: ‘Today’s fires are not your grandfather’s wildfires’
The threat of this year’s wildfire season has “frightened” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who has been advocating for more robust wildfire resiliency programs in the face of the incoming threat.
“It’s significantly beyond what we dealt with in the past,” he told The Hill’s Equilibrium.
An unforgiving heat wave seized the Western U.S. last week before summer even began, with record-breaking temperatures and wildfires sweeping across the region — spurred on by dry thunderstorms and windy conditions. By Friday, the National Interagency Fire Center reported that 33 active large fires had burned nearly 400,000 acres across 10 states, topping the year-to-date 10-year average.
Wyden warned in an interview Thursday afternoon that “today’s fires are not your grandfather’s wildfires. They are bigger, they are hotter, they are more severe, and they’re compounded by the climate.”
These new fires, Wyden said, are a new kind of wildfire, different from what firefighters and administrators have dealt with in the past. And the question of what the summer’s fires will bring is “what people talk about in the local coffee shops all over the West.”
Equilibrium: At Thursday’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, you addressed U.S. Forest Service Chief Victoria Christiansen about wildfire preparedness. One point you made was, “This year in the West, we could be looking at the prospect of multiple fires, big ones, at the same time.” You asked how the Forest Service is planning to make sure that we can share resources this summer or, possibly, get more. What do you think will happen in the short-term?
Wyden: Let me build on what I said to the chief. The record-level drought and heat that has already been showing up in the West makes our region look like a tinderbox ready to go up in the flames.
I described a recent visit to Medford in southern Oregon. It was the hottest day in history that spring day. Weather officials called in to give it the highest warning level. And [last Thursday], in response to my questions, Chief Christiansen confirmed that areas are already facing preparedness levels 4 and 5. Which means that the threat of a wildfire is imminent.
It, of course, comes on the heels of the devastating 2020 wildfire season in my state — thousands of Oregonians displaced, communities where I’ve held town hall meetings reduced to ash. …
Today’s fires are not your grandfather’s wildfires. They are bigger, they are hotter, they are more severe, and they’re compounded by the climate.
Now what I requested within a short time is [the Forest Service] plan for dealing with what I walked away with from all these visits in the forest country, in Oregon.
What the [U.S. Forest] Service has always done here in the past and done it with a real measure of fairness and capability … is that throughout the West, communities share resources.
I said, “If you have a fire in Nevada, we can help, and if we have a fire in Oregon, they help.” My question is what happens if throughout the West, there are multiple, big fires at the same time?
Do you think this is likely to happen this summer?
It is a very real danger. You go to bed at night in the West and pray that it’s not going to happen. But certainly, the West needs to be ready for that.
Now, Chief [Christiansen], to her credit, said … the system is being taxed to the breaking point. Her words, not mine. And remember, that’s without all these big fires roaring through the West at the same time. It’s why I asked the question.
So I feel very strongly about this topic, and I’m prepared to do what’s necessary given the fact the federal government owns more than half of our state, [which is] very heavily forested. This is the issue I started with — that people in coffee shops all over the West are concerned about.
At Thursday’s Energy and National Resources Committee hearing, you gave the Forest Service a week to come back to you with a plan. Are you confident they will do so?
What I can tell you is: I think this is so urgent. I want this turned around quickly, and that’s what we’re going to be focused on.
And as I say, this year represents a danger. It’s frightened me. It’s significantly beyond what we dealt with in the past. It’s why I compared it to what used to happen. What used to happen is you’d have fires in the West — you’d have one in Oregon, and California, Nevada and Idaho would help out and vice versa. That was traditionally how we shared resources.
My question to the chief today — which is what I went home with when I got on the plane from the visit I made — is “what happens if we have big fires, big dangerous fires, in multiple parts of the West at the same time? What will be done then?” Fire seasons in the past were shorter and staggered. My concern now is, what happens if the fires keep coming at the West this summer and into the future, simultaneously?
You’ve requested a plan from the Forest Service, but what can practically be done, if the necessary budget doesn’t exist?
The role of the committee historically has been to give the chief and the agency the tools they need to do the job. We always saw our role as making sure that the professionals on the ground have the tools.
When I see what they are planning in terms of this year on preparedness, with the threat of something that goes beyond what we’ve seen in the past, of course we’ll go to the next level and say, what kind of tools do you need to deal with this? It can be tankers and personnel and drones and all of the above in terms of firefighting capacity.
But the request is to have a plan, to make sure that you know what it is they are looking at in their view and to assess the plan so that if there are gaps in resources … the [Forest] Service has let me and the other Western senators know what needs to be done, and we will fight like hell to get them the resources.
How do the two wildfire bills* that you’ve recently introduced play into this ultimate long-term vision?
* Wyden introduced the National Prescribed Fire Act of 2021 (S.1734), which would support the prefire season with controlled burns, with several co-sponsors at a May Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee meeting. He unveiled the 21st Century Conservation Corps Act (S.487), which would provide funds for a conservation workforce and strengthen fire prevention, alongside Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) in February.
I focused first on preparedness for this danger of multiple fires at the same time in the West — and I also got into policy. I asked [Chief Christiansen] if my math was right — and they were talking about needing $20 billion to reduce hazardous fuels. She answered, “Yup, senator.” …
The two policies I talked about were my prescribed burn bill with Sen. [Joe] Manchin [D-W.Va.] and Sen. [Maria] Cantwell [D-Wash.], which I think has a broad coalition of supporters, and what I want people to talk about was my 21st Century Civilian Conservation Corps bill with Congressman [Joe] Neguse [D-Colo.].
And to me, if you look at the enormity of what we saw last year and going forward, putting thousands of young people to work in the woods could be hugely helpful. I heard when I was home, as I was making my way through timber country, that a lot of the officials said that people from the 21st Century Civilian Conservation Corps could be hugely helpful to them as working volunteers.
What’s your stance on the role that climate is playing in the whole infrastructure bill discussion? Is it being taken seriously enough?
I am the author of a bill with about 33 senators as co-sponsors, the Clean Energy for America Act, and it recently was passed in the Senate Finance Committee, which I chair, and was sent to the Senate floor.
What it does: Right now, the tax code has 44 separate provisions on energy. And most of those are sort of monuments to yesteryear. And I proposed setting those 44 existing breaks in the dustbin [of] history and replacing the 44 with three — one for clean energy, one for clean transportation fuel and one for energy efficiency. And it creates a tech-neutral, free market approach with the lodestar being reducing carbon.
And in terms of the Finance Committee, it is far and away the most transformative of any legislation in 100 years coming out of the Finance Committee that relates to clean energy and environmental protection. And yes, we will try to make it part of legislation going forward at every opportunity.
What makes Oregon unique among its neighbors in the West, in terms of what the state needs to combat wildfires?
What is unique right now is we were just devastated last fall, and now we’ve got another very treacherous fire season coming at us.
Most communities in the West didn’t get hit as hard as we did in the fall of 2020. … But I think what makes our challenge particularly important is I’ve still got constituents going through [Federal Emergency Management Agency] FEMA red tape and bureaucracy, trying to get their lives put together from last fall. And now they see these threats, perhaps bigger, barreling at us again, while they’re still digging out, literally and figuratively, from last fall.