WASHINGTON, D.C. – With recent forecasts predicting “above normal” wildfire activity throughout the summer fire season in Washington and the West, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) Thursday called on the U.S. Forest Service to immediately implement 21st century tools and resources to combat wildfires, protect firefighters, and defend communities across the state.
“We want to use every resource that we can,” Senator Cantwell told the U.S. Forest Service. “We want this to be the same as any disaster that you’d be preparing for, whether it’s a hurricane in the South or a storm off our east coast. We view the fire season as a major storm impacting us.”
At a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing to examine the outlook for wildland fire and management programs for 2019, Cantwell highlighted projections by the National Interagency Fire Center that point to a worse-than-normal wildfire season through September in both eastern Washington and the traditionally damp western side of the state.
In her questions for U.S. Forest Service Fire Aviation and Management Director Shawna Legarza, Cantwell highlighted bipartisan legislation she passed earlier this year to increase firefighter safety by requiring the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior to begin providing GPS locations for crews on wildfires. The legislation also requires that the agencies begin using unmanned aircraft systems to scout out and map wildfires in real time.
“What can we do to get the Forest Service to immediately implement that GPS system so we know the location of resources and assets, and hopefully onto our firefighters as well so we can protect them this season?” Cantwell asked. “Do not study this for an entire year – pick the most urgent tools that you can implement today.”
Local firefighters within Benton and Franklin County say that this needs to not just be discussed at the Federal and State level, but also at the local governments.
"All those different platforms or technology that's out there, we need to focus on getting everybody on the same page so when we do all end up at the same fire we are using the same technology," said Chief Lonnie Click, Benton County Fire District 1.
Cantwell emphasized the importance of this life-saving firefighting technology as the impacts of climate change continue to be a significant driver of severe wildfires in many western states.
“Let’s get you the tools, but you have our attention. And you are going to continue to have our attention because it’s such a big issue,” Cantwell said. “The climate of hotter and drier conditions is going to continue to challenge us.”