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Congress seeks wildfire prevention bill ahead of new burning season

Fires burned 9.6 million acres in 2017, costing $2.9 billion
An air tanker drops retardant while battling a wildfire near Mariposa, Calif., in July 2017. A U.S. House bill seeks to direct the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to focus more on prevention of wildfires rather than emergency responses.

WASHINGTON – Congress considered legislation Tuesday that seeks to avoid a repeat of the disastrous 2017 wildfire season that ravaged Colorado, California and other western states.

A bill discussed during a U.S. House hearing would require the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to focus more on prevention of wildfires rather than emergency responses.

“There is a clear return on investment from mitigation,” said Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa., who introduced the Disaster Recovery Reform Act. Every dollar invested in wildfire prevention saves taxpayers six to eight, he said.

Major provisions of the bill would make it easier for persons with moderate incomes to obtain Small Business Administration loans for disaster recovery from the fires. In addition, states would be authorized to administer federal funds for temporary and permanent housing construction after a disaster.

The congressional hearing comes at a time the 2018 wildfire season might already have started in Colorado.

Last week more than 2,000 acres burned in northern Pueblo County and southern El Paso County, forcing residents to flee from about 250 homes before the fires were extinguished.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee already has approved the Disaster Recovery Reform Act. It now moves to a vote in the House.

Wildfires last year burned more than 9.6 million acres of land in Western states, costing the federal government a record $2.9 billion for firefighting. The fires were propelled by dry weather and high winds that environmentalists warn will only get worse with global warming.

The insurance industry ranks Colorado as the third-most likely state to suffer major wildfire damage, behind California and Texas.

Robert Fenton, FEMA’s regional administrator, recommended during the hearing Tuesday that wildfire prevention should include perimeters around buildings that are cleared of substances that could burn. He also said the government should encourage construction using flame-resistant materials.

He suggested using public information campaigns to inform the public about the hazards of vegetation overgrowth.

“Building more resilient communities is the best way to reduce risks to people, property and taxpayer dollars,” Fenton said in his testimony. “I cannot overstate the importance of focusing on investing in mitigation before a disaster strikes.”

California, where Fenton’s office is located, suffered its worst and most deadly fire season in history last year, he said.

“2012 to 2015 was the driest period in the state in 1,200 years,” Fenton said.

Susan Gorin, a Sonoma County, California, supervisor, suggested better warning systems and evacuation preparedness during wildfires for vulnerable populations, such as elderly persons.

She testified that “at least 17 of our 24 deaths resulting from the wildfires were of people at least 67 years old.”