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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Trump signs Cantwell bill requiring new wildfire technology, smoke forecasts

A new federal law aims to protect wildland firefighters by requiring agencies to outfit crews with GPS locators and deploy drones to scout out and map blazes.

The Wildfire Management Technology Advancement Act, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., was signed by President Donald Trump last week after sailing through both chambers of Congress with large majorities. It was packaged with more than 130 other bills covering a variety of natural resource programs.

The law also includes provisions related to wildfire smoke, which has choked Eastern Washington several summers in a row.

On Wednesday, Cantwell joined fire and health experts at the Spokane Fire Department’s training center to tout the legislation, which was co-sponsored by Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo.

“Senator Gardner and I both represent states that have been greatly impacted by wildland fires, so we worked together to bring new technology to the table,” Cantwell said.

By the 2020 fire season, large wildfires will be mapped in real time using a network of drones carrying infrared sensors – an improvement over wildfire maps that are usually updated once a day.

Cantwell said some mapping technology is already in use, “but what we want now is real-time mapping and real-time locations. The fires are that dynamic and grow that quickly, and we need better information to tackle them.”

Additionally, by the 2021 fire season, all local, state and federal firefighters assigned to large wildfires must be equipped with personal GPS devices so commanders can know the real-time locations of personnel and resources – a measure that can save lives, according to firefighting experts.

“As is evident over the last several years, wildfires have continued to grow in size and complexity, and often threaten valuable natural resources and vital infrastructure,” said Mark John, deputy chief of operations of the Spokane Fire Department.

The new law, John said, “will assist in supporting our firefighting efforts by increasing efficiency and greatly enhancing firefighter safety.”

Also under the new law:

  • The U.S. Forest Service will be required to update software that fire managers use to document firefighting decisions so that alerts will sound if orders conflict or if personnel are about to be sent into hazardous situations.
  • The government will create a database to track on-the-job injuries and deaths of wildland firefighters to help mitigate risks and inform training decisions.
  • Forest Service meteorologists will have access to satellite data from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, as well as software developed by the Department of Energy, to predict which counties in the United States are most likely to experience large wildfires.
  • The Forest Service will also have access to a NASA database that will inform which measures should be employed to prevent mudslides in the rainy season following large wildfires.
  • Starting this fire season, meteorologists from the interagency Wildland Fire Air Quality Response Program will be assigned to large wildfires to provide communities with smoke forecasts.

“Last August, Spokane experienced some of the worst air quality in the nation due to wildfire smoke,” which can cause asthma and worsen chronic heart and lung conditions, said Julie Oliver, director of the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency. “Starting this upcoming fire season, Senator Cantwell’s bill will ensure every major fire has an air resource adviser on the ground to help predict, prepare and respond to wildfire smoke impacts.”

The new programs will be funded with more than $100 million that Cantwell helped secure last year in a package of forestry and wildfire legislation. That package also created a contingency fund to stop the Forest Service from “borrowing” firefighting funds for other services.

The package signed last week also revives the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which reached its expiration date in 2015 and has been funded on a short-term basis. The fund, which derives revenue from offshore oil and gas developments, has provided more than $18 billion for conservation and recreation projects since its creation in 1965.

Those include at least 19 projects in Spokane County. Most recently, $500,000 from the fund was earmarked last year to develop the 19-acre Bidwell Park in the Colbert area.