On a record day in D.C. for smoke pollution, U.S. Senate panel debates wildfire strategy
The One World Trade Center and the New York skyline are seen in the background as a man jogs through Liberty State Park in Jersey City, New Jersey, while the smoke from Canada wildfires covers the Manhattan borough on June 8, 2023. (Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)
As smoke from Canadian wildfires caused the most hazardous air conditions on record in the Washington, D.C., area on Thursday, members of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee said that Congress should lift federal firefighter pay and encourage logging to reduce the risk of future blazes.
“Smoke from the wildfires burning right now in Canada has been affecting the skies, as you can see outside,” committee Chairman Joe Manchin III, a West Virginia Democrat, said. “And if you’ve been outside, you can sure taste it.”
Administration officials at the hearing, which was scheduled before massive fires in southeastern Canada drifted to major East Coast cities this week, appealed for more funding for federal wildland firefighters.
Members of both parties on the committee also pushed for allowing more logging to reduce fire risk in overgrown forests.
Several members of the panel commented on the timing of the hearing as a haze descended on the nation’s capital. The meeting was scheduled before smoke moved into East Coast cities, creating eerie images and putting more than 100 million people in the U.S. under Air Quality Index alerts, according to a White House fact sheet.
While smoky conditions are more common in the Western U.S. and Canada, the more densely populated East Coast is rarely affected. Smoke this week has lingered from New England to North Carolina.
Some members from Western states said the experience should help people in Washington and New York understand common conditions in Western summers.
“I think America is waking up — at least on the East Coast — to this problem,” Washington state Democrat Maria Cantwell said. “And we certainly have known all about it on the West Coast for some time now.”
“It’s really appropriate to be holding this hearing,” Idaho Republican Jim Risch said. “For those of you who live on the East Coast, welcome to our air in the West. This is common. I don’t remember a summer in Boise when we haven’t had smoke.”
In a written statement, President Joe Biden called the smoke “another stark reminder of the impacts of climate change.”
Biden has sent U.S. firefighting personnel and equipment to help with the fires, especially in Quebec, he said. He also spoke Wednesday with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to offer more support, he said.
The president said the U.S. Transportation Department was watching impacts on commercial flights.
In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was monitoring air quality in affected areas. Biden noted citizens can see readings at the ZIP code level at airnow.gov and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was updating public health guidance.
Firefighter ‘pay cliff’
Biden has also pushed for a permanent pay raise for federal wildland firefighters.
The bipartisan infrastructure law that he championed and signed in 2021 included a two-year raise, but agencies are now facing a “pay cliff,” Jeffrey Rupert, the director of the U.S. Interior Department’s Office of Wildland Management, told the Senate panel.
“The bill funding is estimated to run out at the end of this fiscal year,” Rupert said. “That could have a devastating effect on not only our firefighter morale, but certainly our ability to recruit and retain firefighters.”
More than 4,000 firefighters at Interior received a boost in pay from the infrastructure law’s temporary supplement, Rupert said. Interior employs more than 5,000 wildland firefighters, making it the second-largest federal firefighting workforce behind the U.S. Forest Service’s 10,000 firefighters.
The Forest Service aspires to hire nearly 1,000 more firefighters in the next fiscal year, Jaelith Hall-Rivera, the agency’s deputy chief of state, private, and tribal forestry, said at the hearing.
Having the supplemental pay expire “would be absolutely catastrophic,” Hall-Rivera told Nevada Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto. A union representing Forest Service workers has said as many as 30% to 50% of Forest Service firefighters would leave to find better wages elsewhere, Hall-Rivera said.
‘Let’s harvest’ forests
But some Republicans said the administration has already spent too much ineffectively and indicated they opposed further funding increases, saying federal efforts should instead be on overhauling policy to allow more tree harvesting.
“It is unsustainable to keep throwing more and more money and resources at suppression without dramatically increasing mitigation,” ranking Republican John Barrasso of Wyoming said. “America’s wildfire crisis will continue to escalate until our forests are properly managed. Our forests are overgrown and they are unhealthy.”
Barrasso did say wildland firefighters “have been asked to do too much for too little in return” and should be “fully supported and compensated.”
House Natural Resources Chairman Bruce Westerman, a Republican from Arkansas, used similar critiques of the Biden administration’s approach in a June 2 statement on the approaching 2023 fire season.
“It is encouraging to see that President Biden and some in his administration are recognizing the need for forest management,” Westerman said. “Until we make these long-term changes, land managers will continue having to sacrifice ounces of prevention for pounds of cure, all of which costs more and more money while doing nothing to mitigate the underlying issues.”
Barrasso said Thursday more trees should be removed from overgrown forests. Crowded forests can fuel more intense fires that spread more rapidly.
Hall-Rivera and Wyoming interim State Forester Kelly Norris agreed that forests should see more “active management,” which includes cutting down some trees.
Manchin, a centrist Democrat, agreed, saying that overgrown forests should be used for timber products.
“Let’s harvest,” he said near the end of the hearing. “It doesn’t cost anything. We make money and we solve both problems.”
Forest overgrowth, the product of a century of aggressive fire suppression, has contributed to worsening wildfires, experts say.
A changing climate, largely the product of carbon emissions from fossil fuels and other sources, has also worsened conditions.
Periods of lengthy, extreme drought have dried forests, Rupert said. Drier trees are more susceptible to fire.
“That absolutely is a huge part of driving these catastrophic megafires that we’re experiencing,” he said
U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico, which saw record wildfires last year, said effects of the drier climate are noticeable.
“There are times when there’s more moisture in a two-by-four at Home Depot than there is in a standing live ponderosa pine in our forests in New Mexico,” he said.
Heinrich also said he supported active management, but said to be effective, such treatments should focus on removing smaller trees that can be “ladder” fuels and leave the large standing trees that sequester carbon.
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