Luján, Padilla Spearhead Bill to Strengthen Federal Wildfire Science During Historic Wildfire Season

Washington, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senators Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) and Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) led a coalition of Senators in introducing the National Wildland Fire Risk Reduction Program Act, a comprehensive science authorization bill that will identify and invest in research and development (R&D), set up warning and forecast systems, develop observation and sensing technologies, and standardize data collection efforts to improve the nation’s preparedness, resilience, and response to wildfires. Senators cosponsoring the bill include Sens. Heinrich (D-N.M), Feinstein (D-Calif.), Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Rosen (D-Nev.), Murray (D-Wash.), Wyden (D-Ore.), and Smith (D-Minn.).

In 2020, the U.S. tied its most active wildfire year on record, with 10.1 million acres burned. Since the National Interagency Fire Center began compiling data in 1983, the average annual land area scorched by wildfires has more than tripled, coinciding with a steady increase in annual temperature and exacerbated by worsening drought conditions in the West. In New Mexico, the Hermit’s Peak – Calf Canyon Fire is the largest fire currently burning in the U.S. and the largest in the state’s history.

This legislation would establish a National Wildland Fire Risk Reduction Program with the purpose of achieving major measurable reductions in the losses of life, property, and natural resources from wildland fires through a coordinated federal effort to:

  • Improve the understanding and prediction of the fire environment, wildland fires, associated smoke, and their impacts, including in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), on communities, buildings and other infrastructure, ecosystem services and watersheds, and social and economic outcomes;
  • Develop and implement science-based and cost-effective measures to enhance community resilience, address and mitigate wildland fire and associated smoke impacts, and restore natural fire regimes to meet ecosystem needs;
  • Improve the understanding and mitigation of the impacts of climate change, drought, and climate variability on wildland fire risk, frequency, and severity.

“The federal science agencies have a crucial role to play in improving how the nation understands, anticipates, and responds to wildland fires, but several of these agencies currently have no defined authority or mandate to do so,” said Senator Luján. “This legislation addresses this gap and improves the entire Federal approach to wildland fires. The wildfires currently raging in northern New Mexico are the largest in our state’s history – burning nearly 300,000 acres. It is critical that Congress invest in our understanding of and response to this devastating type of natural disaster so that we can increase fire resiliency and protect New Mexicans from these increasingly catastrophic wildfires.”

“As wildfires continue growing more frequent and more dangerous, we need a whole of government approach to increase preparedness, make our communities more resilient, and support our firefighters on the front lines of combating this crisis,” said Senator Padilla. “The National Wildland Fire Risk Reduction Program Act will allow our nation’s science agencies to leverage their vast expertise to better forecast potential fires, monitor fires once they ignite, and provide critical data to first responders. This is a commonsense approach to help us stay one step ahead of wildfires and help prevent catastrophic losses that we’ve become too familiar with during fire seasons.”

“The University of New Mexico is very supportive of this legislative proposal by Senator Luján and Senator Padilla to better coordinate federal resources in response to deteriorating wildland fire conditions that are occurring across the arid West,” said Garnett S. Stokes, President of the University of New Mexico. “UNM recognizes the need for wildfire research coordination across federal agencies to better prepare our communities and ecosystems for worsening wildfire conditions in New Mexico and throughout the West.  In this role, UNM intends to be a trusted and reliable resource in educating the public and policymakers on the connection between climate change and wildland fire susceptibility, and we are uniquely prepared to assist government agencies with science-based approaches to forecasting wildland fire risk, mitigating human and natural resource impacts and improving ecosystem resilience.”

“This legislation is timely as we see wildfires burning across the region,” said New Mexico State University Chancellor Dan Arvizu. “NMSU is a land-grant university and we stand ready to help, not only by advancing research to better understand and recover from these wildfires, but to also engage in the extension and outreach needed to help the individual communities who have been impacted the most.”

“The recent wildfires very near the New Mexico Highlands University campus have only highlighted the importance of reducing wildland fires and the terrible losses they cause. We simply must do more to preserve the forests we have, improve them based on data-driven practices, and restore those that we can, again using the best science available. The proposed legislation will support those goals and we endorse it completely and without reservation,” said Dr. Sam Minner, New Mexico Highlands University President.

“We commend Senator Luján for introducing this bill, which would muster numerous federal agencies’ combined scientific and administrative expertise to answer the threat of extreme wildfire events,” said Terry Sullivan, State Director of The Nature Conservancy in New Mexico. “The nature of New Mexico’s landscape has changed and demands a whole-of-government approach to wildfire preparedness. Senator Luján’s bill would enable land managers to better understand and predict the threat of wildfire – a threat exacerbated by drought and climate change – to communities in New Mexico and across the country. The Nature Conservancy stands with its partners and the stewards of the land to use all resources at our disposal to reduce risk and restore ecosystem health and resilience.”

“Megafires in the West, like the ones currently burning outside my office here in New Mexico, are incredibly difficult to predict or control because of extreme drought conditions exacerbated by climate change. The National Wildland Fire Risk Reduction Program Act will help develop the models, tools, and comprehensive research we need to support decisions being made on the ground to keep our communities and watersheds safe,” said Dr. Zander Evans, Executive Director, Forest Stewards Guild.

A full list of stakeholder testimonials can be found HERE.

Full text of the legislation can be found HERE.

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