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Wildfire Research Legislation in the Works

JUL 21, 2023
The House Science Committee is preparing legislation that aims to improve wildfire prediction and response, with a focus on better understanding weather conditions that exacerbate fires.
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Science Policy News Intern
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A wildfire at the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.

(Josh O’Connor / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The House Science Committee held a hearing last week to discuss weather monitoring and forecasting technologies that scientists and firefighters use in confronting wildfire threats.

The hearing picked up a thread from two years ago when committee Democrats, then in the majority, advanced a bill called the National Wildland Fire Risk Reduction Program Act to improve interagency coordination of wildfire research. That effort did not gain support from Republicans, who argued at the time that they were not adequately consulted in the drafting of the legislation.

However, Committee Chair Frank Lucas (R-OK) said at the hearing he is planning new legislation, and Ranking Member Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) said she looks forward to advancing a “bipartisan package” of wildfire-related bills and reintroduced the Democrats’ bill the next day. So far committee Republicans’ main proposal is the Fire Information and Reaction Enhancement (FIRE) Act, which would direct the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to improve its means of detecting, predicting, and communicating wildfire activity. The bill is sponsored by committee member Rep. Mike Garcia (R-CA) and three other House members from California, including two Democrats.

Lucas has made weather prediction a committee priority this year and launched an effort to update the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017 and integrate commercial capabilities into forecasting, a subject that received substantial attention at last week’s hearing. Lucas is also working on a major policy bill for NOAA, which houses the National Weather Service, but has not yet indicated whether he expects to eventually combine these legislative pushes.

FIRE Act aims to bolster new fire weather research testbed

The FIRE Act would direct NOAA to construct “one or more weather research testbeds to develop improved detection of and forecast capabilities for wildfire events and their impacts,” with a one-year target budget of $15 million. NOAA is already in the process of creating one such testbed. Congress provided NOAA $4 million in fiscal year 2023 specifically for developing the fire weather testbed and the prior year provided $15 million for fire weather research in general. Additionally, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 allocated NOAA $100 million specifically for wildfire research and wildfire infrastructure.

At the hearing, Garcia highlighted the increasing occurrence of extreme fire events near his Los Angeles-area district, saying, “Fire season is almost becoming a year-round thing.” A former Navy pilot, Garcia went on to characterize fire prevention and firefighting as similar to highly coordinated combat operations.

“In this case, it’s the fires, it’s the brush, it’s the prescribed burns to mitigate in advance of, but especially the predictive modeling ... on the weather side that feeds information to the warfighter — in this case, the firefighters — to make real-time decisions that ultimately save their lives and the lives of our constituents,” he remarked.

Expanding commercial partnerships a focus of the committee

In his opening statement, Lucas said he believes commercial partnerships should play a bigger role in improving firefighting capabilities. “NOAA and the National Weather Service cannot tackle this problem on their own. Long gone are the days of fire watchers sitting in towers with binoculars scanning for smoke,” he said.

One of the witnesses invited to the hearing was James Peverill, CEO of GreenSight, a small business that develops drone-based weather and fire prediction systems. Peverill spoke about the challenges that current regulations set in place by the Federal Aviation Administration pose for his company, arguing the FAA should “look for creative solutions” that enable the integration of private drones in public missions.

This week, the House passed FAA policy legislation that would direct the agency to update its approach to regulating drones used for wildfire response. The legislation also incorporates a bill developed by the Science Committee pertaining to FAA research and development. Separately, the committee has advanced a bill pertaining to drone technology that includes a focus on wildfire detection.

Democrats seek expansive interagency R&D effort

The Democrats’ Wildland Fire Risk Reduction Program Act would create an interagency hazard mitigation R&D program analogous to ones currently in place for earthquakes and windstorms.

The bill sets out responsibilities for each participating agency, which include NOAA, NASA, the U.S. Forest Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, among others. It would also mandate a quadrennial strategic plan covering matters such as R&D goals and how new technologies will translate into measurable reductions in the loss of life, property, and ecosystems. The act recommends Congress annually appropriate about $400 million to the activities it covers, rising to over $480 million by fiscal year 2028.

Lofgren said of the legislation, “Fire seasons are getting longer and more severe. Congress must advance a whole-of-government approach to execute a coordinated and united federal agenda on wildfires that uses science-based and cost-effective measures to change the way we think about, plan for, and respond to wildfires.”

The new version of the bill includes amendments from both Democrats and Republicans that were attached during the Science Committee’s consideration of the bill in 2021. So far, no Republicans have cosponsored the bill. They may instead develop a comprehensive wildfire research bill of their own that incorporates provisions from the Democrats’ bill.

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