Congressman Garamendi Gets Update on California Fires from CAL FIRE, U.S. Forest Service, CA National Guard
SACRAMENTO, CA - Yesterday afternoon, Congressman John Garamendi (D-Fairfield, CA), a former Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Interior Department, met with leaders responsible for overseeing wildfire emergency response in California, including Deputy Director for Fire Protection Dave Teter (CAL FIRE), Chief of Fire and Rescue Operations Kim Zagaris (California Office of Emergency Services), Deputy Fire Director Chris Schow (U.S. Forest Service), and Colonel Todd Lewis, Director of Joint Operations (California National Guard).
They briefed the Congressman on their progress battling wildfires across the state with a particular emphasis on the Rocky Fire in Lake County. The Rocky Fire, which spread over 20,000 acres during a five hour period on a cool night, is part of an alarming trend in California wildfires. With dry brush and trees much drier than usual because of the multiyear drought, fires are spreading quicker than ever. Obviously, this makes conditions more dangerous for emergency responders and neighboring residents.
“In Lake County and across the state, we are seeing the dangerous effects of our extreme drought. Our emergency responders are doing the best they can to manage the wildfires and save homes and businesses,” Garamendi said.
“Congress has an important role to play in managing wildfires. Under existing law, when wildfire suppression funds are exhausted, agencies are forced to use funds that are set aside for the wildfire management programs that make wildfires less extreme. That’s shortsighted and dangerous,” he added. “We need to make sure wildfires are treated like every other natural disaster by enabling emergency responders to access federal emergency funds when disaster strikes. This will make sure that we don’t foolishly undermine the fire prevention programs that make wildfires less severe.”
It was noted during the meeting that many rural fire roads are poorly maintained, making it more difficult and slower for emergency responders to reach fire locations. Funding for fire access roads typically comes from forest management accounts, the same accounts that are raided when the Forest Service exhausts its firefighting budget.
Garamendi pledged to amplify his ongoing work in securing more reliable funding for wildfire management. The current system is broken and makes our forests less resilient to catastrophic wildfire. It’s self-defeating to curtail activities designed to prevent forest fires, such as thinning overgrown forests and clearing underbrush, to cover the full costs of fighting blazes that have become more destructive over the past decade. This creates a vicious cycle where more extreme wildfires are made more likely. Garamendi is a co-sponsor of Congressman Mike Simpson’s (R-ID) bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, H.R. 167, a bill that would treat wildfires like every other natural disaster. This change in law would make federal emergency funds available to battle wildfires without the need to reduce management funds.
They also discussed the need to preserve funding to upgrade and maintain the Blackhawks used by the National Guard in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Blackhawk helicopters enable the Guard to quickly reach fire spots that are otherwise inaccessible by land. Garamendi was part of a coalition of California Members of Congress who successfully convinced the House Armed Services Committee to include an amendment for Blackhawk funding in the NDAA, but that amendment is not part of the Senate’s version of the NDAA. Garamendi serves on the Conference Committee for the NDAA, making him part of the negotiations between the House and Senate on the bill, and he has made Blackhawk funding a key priority.
Garamendi said, “I shudder to imagine how much more damaging these wildfires would be without our Blackhawk fleet. Making sure the National Guard has the ability to access remote pockets of our country in emergency situations like wildfires is a critical national security priority, and I will work to make sure the House’s Blackhawk language is adopted in the final NDAA.”