Oregon has been experiencing increasingly destructive wildland fire seasons. The devastating 2020 fire season is one of the worst in Oregon’s Fourth Congressional District. The Holiday Farm, Archie Creek, and Slater fires destroyed hundreds of residences and dozens of businesses. Sadly, they were also deadly. DeFazio’s work in Congress is focused on suppressing wildfires when they occur and supporting policies that prevent them from starting in the first place.
There are many reasons forest fires are burning more severely than in the past, and poor forest management and climate change are main causes. Mismanagement of our forests has left them unnaturally dense, dying from disease and drought, and prone to catastrophic fire. This is only exacerbated by climate change, as it creates warmer, drier conditions, increases drought and lengthens wildfire seasons.
As Chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, DeFazio has played a leading role in ensuring the full force of the federal government is brought to bear in responding to and recovering from wildfires. After the fires that swept through the state in September 2020, DeFazio personally called the White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and got the state’s emergency declaration approved less than two hours later. While the fires were still smoldering, DeFazio personally toured the damage caused by the Holiday Farm Fire with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Regional Administrator Mike O’Hare and later led Oregon’s congressional delegation in hosting FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor on a statewide tour to meet with local officials and fire victims to help improve and better coordinate the federal response.
DeFazio led efforts to ensure FEMA provided direct assistance to wildfire survivors, helping connect more than 9,000 Oregonians with FEMA’s individual assistance programs to provide temporary housing, cash for emergency needs, and assistance repairing some fire damage to properties. In less than two months, Oregonians received more than $20 million in direct federal assistance. DeFazio also secured federal investments to rebuild roads, public buildings, parks, utility lines, and water supplies after the fires damaged many communities statewide.
Ensuring Federal Support for Wildfire Recovery
DeFazio was a lead author of provisions in the 2018 Disaster Recovery Reform Act (DRRA, P.L. 115-254) to provide additional federal resources to prevent and respond to wildfire disasters. As a result of DeFazio’s work, states that face wildfires will receive assistance both to respond to the fire immediately and, at the same time, qualify for additional investments to reduce the risk of fire damage in the future. In the same law, DeFazio included language to ensure that damaged or destroyed infrastructure is repaired or replaced to withstand future disasters, such as hardening critical infrastructure like powerlines, substations, police and fires stations, and schools. DeFazio also made sure that FEMA could provide greater amounts of financial assistance to individuals impacted by all disasters, including wildfires. This will unfortunately be critical as so many Oregonians rebuild from this year’s catastrophic fires.
More recently, DeFazio’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee passed his legislation to increase the federal cost share of disaster response in 2020 from 75% to 90%. This could save the State of Oregon and local governments as much as $150 million in responding to the 2020 wildfire season. A vote on the House floor is expected soon on DeFazio’s legislation.
Until September 2019, the USFS had to “fire borrow.” In recent years, the USFS had repeatedly exhausted its fire suppression funding before the fire season ended. Once the USFS had exhausted its budget for fire suppression, it was forced to borrow money from its fire prevention and forest management budget. That meant that the very accounts that were intended for forest management – including hazardous fuels reduction - were raided to fight wildfires.
Working across the aisle, DeFazio led efforts to fix the fire borrowing insanity and helped pass a law that designated wildfires as disasters, just like tornadoes and hurricanes. Now once the USFS has exhausted its fire suppression budget, any additional funding needed would come from the federal emergency disaster relief fund.
Increasing Funding for Forest Management
The United States Forest Service (USFS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are tasked with managing and protecting millions of acres in the District. There are laws on the books that provide tools to improve forest health – but the agencies lack the funding to use those tools successfully.
DeFazio strongly supports increased budgets for land management agencies. More funding is needed to perform fuel reduction, suppress wildfire, complete forest projects, and personnel to execute their multi-use management missions. For example, in 2017 the Forest Service reported that there are over 1.8 million acres in Oregon of treatment projects that were “shovel ready,” meaning all environmental analysis has been completed. Yet acres remain fire-prone because the USFS doesn’t have the funds to complete them.
In 2015, DeFazio led the House in passage of the bipartisan Healthy Forests Restoration Act (HFRA). HFRA expedites the review process for hazardous fuel reduction and forest restoration projects on federal forest lands, with an emphasis on federal lands close to at-risk communities or significant infrastructure. Hazardous fuel reduction projects are intended to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire by removing or modifying the availability of vegetation (trees, grass, etc.) that fuel wildfires. HFRA has never been fully funded, leaving communities at risk. DeFazio consistently requests higher funding for this and other fire protection programs.
He has also supported the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), or drones, for wildfire suppression. In the 2016 FAA Extension Act, DeFazio inserted a provision that requires the FAA, as well as the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior, to expedite the safe use of drones to support firefighting operations. This provision successfully became law.
Improving Wildfire Resilience in Communities
2020’s devastating wildfire season has shown yet again that wildfires don’t stop burning where public lands end. Whole communities across Oregon were destroyed, just as other western states have experienced in recent years.
DeFazio has been a consistent supporter of improving a community’s ability to withstand wildfires. In 2015, working across the aisle, DeFazio led the House passage of the bipartisan Healthy Forests Restoration Act (HFRA). HFRA expedites the review process for hazardous fuel reduction and forest restoration projects on federal forest lands, with an emphasis on federal lands close to at-risk communities or significant infrastructure. Hazardous fuel reduction projects are intended to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire by removing or modifying the availability of vegetation (trees, grass, etc.) that fuel wildfires.
HFRA authorized to expedited treatment of up to 20 million acres of hazards fuels. Yet HFRA has never been funded at the level of need, and many fire-prone areas remain at increased risk. DeFazio consistently requests higher funding for this and other fire protection programs.
More on Wildfires
Congressman DeFazio (OR-04) today released the following statement in response to a report that a wildland firefighter had been killed battling the Gales Fire north of Oakridge on Monday afternoon.
Today, Congressman Peter A. DeFazio (OR-04) joined a bipartisan, bicameral effort to secure more relief for farmers, ranchers, and other agriculture producers in the western United States affected by historic wildfires, droughts, and extreme heat. In a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the lawmakers urge the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to open relief programs up to more producers that have lost crops and livestock to the ongoing droughts, extreme heat, and wildfires.
U.S. Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR-4)—who serves as the Chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)— and Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley are leading U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and U.S.
Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR-04), alongside Oregon’s U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, and Representatives Earl Blumenauer (D-OR-03), Kurt Schrader (D-OR-05) and Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR-01), today announced that the federal government has agreed to pay 100 percent of the costs associated with debris removal and emergency protective measures following last year’s Labor Day fires.
Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Peter DeFazio (OR-04), Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Senator Jeff Merkley (D-04) today announced that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has awarded the Oregon Office of Emergency Management (OEM) $13.1 million for costs tied to the 2020 wildfires.
Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley led U.S. Senator Ron Wyden and Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR-4) this week in sending a letter to Federal Coordinating Officer Dolph Diemont, urging the Biden administration to continue delivering assistance to Oregonians affected by the 2020 wildfire season, and to address barriers that are making it harder for some survivors to access resources.
Today, in an effort led by Congressman Peter DeFazio (OR-04), whose committee has jurisdiction over FEMA, the entire Oregon congressional delegation called on President Biden to approve a February 9 request from Governor Kate Brown for additional federal funds to respond to recent windstorm-wildfire events. Damage from the unprecedented series of fires that began in September is estimated at nearly $1 billion, including more than $600 million for debris removal alone.
Rep. Peter DeFazio (OR-04), Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Lane County Commissioner Heather Buch today applauded the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) approval of Lane County’s request for a direct housing mission following September’s deadly wildfires.
Today Rep. Peter DeFazio (OR-04), along with original co-authors Mike Thompson (CA-05), Representatives Jimmy Panetta (CA-20), Barbara Lee (CA-13), and Dan Newhouse (WA-04), announced the introduction of the 2020 WHIP+ Reauthorization Act.
This bipartisan bill reactivates the Wildfire and Hurricane Indemnity Program Plus (WHIP+) for 2020 natural disasters, including wildfires. The WHIP program offers critical assistance to agricultural producers, including grape growers, whose crops were impacted by smoke taint.