Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray got a clear message from regional fire officials in a virtual roundtable discussion Wednesday: The federal government needs to make it easier for fire departments to battle the wildfires that are increasingly ravaging the West.
“These fires are no longer rare occurrences in our state,” Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody said during the discussion.
Ing-Moody, Yakima Fire Department Deputy Chief DJ Goldsmith, and Mike Stevens, Washington state director of the Nature Conservancy, spoke at the virtual roundtable Murray hosted to discuss the current fire season, as well as provisions in the U.S. Senate’s recently passed bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that would help prevent and fight wildfires.
The bill, supported by Murray, would help secure $8 billion in wildfire risk reduction by providing funding for community wildfire defense grants, mechanical thinning, controlled burns, the Collaborative Forest Restoration Program and firefighting resources. It has yet to pass the House.
But fire officials who participated in the roundtable indicated more needs to be done.
Goldsmith said it can be hard for local fire departments, like Yakima, to come to agreements with the federal government to help on large fires. He asked Murray to change legislation so those agreements can be re-established and save lives, property and critical infrastructure.
In addition, Goldsmith said the federal government needs to make it easier for local fire departments to come to mutual aid agreements to help each other fight fires without getting caught up in bureaucracy.
“It’s kind of hard to see your neighbors in your back door on fire and not being able to assist,” Goldsmith said.
Goldsmith also urged Murray to address failing communication infrastructure and the “very convoluted and cumbersome process” to get federal reimbursements for fighting fires.
He said Yakima is still waiting on funds for fighting a fire last year. Goldsmith said it’s a time-consuming process, and many fire chiefs in the Yakima area say it is not worth their time to apply for the reimbursements.
Stevens said the state also needs funding for forest restoration treatments, prescribed fire programs, reduction of hazardous fire fuel and restoration of areas after fires.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act would help cover at least some of those activities.
Ing-Moody, whose city has experienced several major wildfires nearby in recent years, said greater federal investment, including in local infrastructure, is urgently needed to proactively address the escalating wildfire crisis in the state.
Murray said she is ready to fight for wildfire resources the state needs.
“This (roundtable) is very helpful for me as I head back to Washington, D.C., to work on making sure we have the funding, that we’re doing everything we can to have the right language so you can have community partners and agreements and to make sure that we got the resources both for mitigation and for making sure that we have the resources for our firefighters on the ground now and preventing these in the future,” she said.
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