WASHINGTON, D.C. – This week, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), a senior member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, joined Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and nine other Western Democratic Senators in seeking answers on the planning efforts of the U.S. Forest Service to protect communities and firefighters heading into the upcoming 2020 wildfire season amid the COVID-19 crisis.

“The impacts of the novel coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19), combined with high levels of drought throughout the West, will create unprecedented wildland firefighting challenges and may hurt numerous rural areas across the country, making the 2020 wildfire season potentially one of the most threatening seasons to date,” the senators wrote in their letter to U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen. “Beyond the basic need to ensure the protection of communities, critical infrastructure, and firefighter safety, we recognize that the COVID-19 pandemic is placing unprecedented demands upon agencies that provide essential public services.”

The Wildland Fire Potential Outlook report released today predicts Above Normal significant large fire potential in “all but the northwestern quarter of the [Northwest] region by August.” The report notes that the weather pattern in the Pacific Northwest has been warm and dry, “which may be problematic for Oregon and Central through Eastern Washington,” and that “outlooks for May and beyond indicate that the weather is most likely to be warmer and drier than usual through spring and summer 2020.”

Senator Cantwell has long been a strong advocate for improving wildfire response to protect firefighters and communities. At U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing with Forest Service Chief Christiansen in February, Senator Cantwell emphasized the threat that fire seasons pose and the importance of funding and implementing 21st-century firefighting technology. “Obviously no one can argue that nationally and internationally, the fire seasons are with us – everywhere from Australia to Alaska,” Cantwell said to Forest Service Chief Christiansen. “The challenge just grows every fire season, and so we definitely want you to have every tool.”

In their letter to Forest Service Chief Christiansen, the senators requested answers on Forest Service plans to:

  • Coordinate with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and state and local health departments to ensure communities impacted by wildfire smoke have access to health care and related supports;
  • Maintain core operations, while limiting exposure to and transmission of the virus to agency employees and non-agency personnel;
  • Continue planning and implementing forest management and hazardous fuels reduction activities to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires, while preventing the spread of COVID-19; and more.

Senator Cantwell’s bipartisan Wildfire Management Technology Advancement Act, which will increase firefighter safety by requiring the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior to begin providing GPS locations for crews on wildfires and begin using Unmanned Aircraft Systems to scout out and map wildfires in real-time, was signed into law in March of last year. In December, Cantwell worked with her colleagues to secure a $1.6 billion increase in funding for wildland management, and in 2018 she secured passage of language to fix the chronic failures in wildfire funding that had long plagued fire-prone communities across the west. She has repeatedly called on officials to make combating wildfires and protecting firefighters a top priority .

Cantwell and Wyden were joined in signing the letter by U.S. Senators Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Patty Murray (D-WA), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Michael Bennet (D-CO).

The full text of the letter is available HERE.