House-Passed Wildfire, Drought Bill Faces Bumpy Path in Senate

  • Republicans object to calls for more spending, authorizations
  • Senate could consider slimmer disaster supplemental

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The House Friday passed a mostly Democrat-led package of 49 bills aimed at addressing escalating wildfire and drought in the West, but the measure faces an uncertain future in the Senate.

The wildfire portion of the legislation (H.R. 5118) would authorize additional investments beyond the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law (Public Law 117-58) for the federal government’s 10-year strategy to prevent and mitigate wildfire. It would also require a minimum of $20 per hour for federal firefighters, along with other benefits and hiring authorities for the Forest Service.

Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), the lead Democrat on the bill, said conversations with the Senate are ongoing.

“We will look to accomplish the bills in this package within any potential vehicle that is available,” he said. Some of the bills have already passed out of the House as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 7900), Neguse said at a press conference. Elements of H.R. 5118 could also advance in a disaster supplemental, a year-end spending deal, or a public lands package, he added.

Photo: David McNew/AFP via Getty Images
A momentary parting of smoke reveals a burning forest at the Oak Fire near Mariposa, Calif., on July 24, 2022.

“It’s important for us to set the marker down about what wildfire response and drought resiliency efforts could look like, and should look like, in terms of meeting the scale of the crisis that faces the American West,” Neguse said.

Read More: BGOV Bill Summary: H.R. 5118, Wildfire and Water Programs

Wildfire and drought issues have attracted bipartisan attention and legislation in both chambers. Several of the bills in H.R. 5118 are bipartisan.

But Republicans largely oppose the overall package, even though it includes two GOP-sponsored bills, in part because they argue it would create programs and authorizations without guaranteeing funding for the agencies to adequately carry them out, including the pay increase for federal firefighters.

The legislation “does absolutely nothing to prevent wildfires, or significantly improve resiliency to drought,” Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, said during floor debate.

“Instead of streamlining environmental regulations and addressing frivolous litigation, which delay vital forest management projects across the country, this bill would add mountains of new red tape on our federal agencies that will grind their already glacial pace of treatment to a complete halt,” he said. Thinning and controlled burning prevent catastrophic wildfire, added Westerman, who has a graduate degree in forestry.

“This bill mentions thinning zero times but it mentions environmental justice 165 times—that should tell you what this bill is really about.”

Response Plan, Droughts

The bill would direct a long-term National Wildfire Plan to enable the Agriculture Department to prioritize landscaping projects, prescribed burns, and other forest management activities.

Read More: Forest Service Moves to Protect Giant Sequoias From Wildfire

The drought portion of the bill would authorize $500 million to help preserve water levels in Colorado River reservoirs, and invest in water recycling, reuse, and desalination.

Two other titles address agency efforts to bolster environmental justice and disaster assistance to individuals and businesses. One provision would amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to prohibit “discrimination based on disparate impact” related to pollution, and allow individuals to sue over it.

Wildfires and drought cost the United States $20 billion in 2021, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Wildfires are burning hotter and more often in the West, and water levels are at record lows in the Colorado River Basin. As of late July, roughly 45% of the country was in drought, according to NOAA.

“We’ll be looking for any opportunity in the Senate to address the western water crisis that is hurting our farmers, ranchers, and communities across Colorado,” Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) said in a statement to Bloomberg Government.

Senate Prospects

While catastrophic wildfire and drought have been on Congress’ radar, shepherding the mostly Democratic bill through the 50-50 Senate may be challenging as lawmakers face a packed legislative schedule ahead of the November midterm elections.

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), whose state was hit this summer by the largest wildfires in its history, said he wants to see the Senate pass “some sort of package or supplemental on drought and wildfires” before the end of the year. “The number of fires, droughts and extreme weather events in the West has just been off the charts this year,” he said in a hallway interview.

One part of the House-passed bill would entitle for federal compensation people who suffered injuries, death, property, or other financial loss due to the New Mexico Hermit’s Peak and Calf Canyon fire because it was started by a Forest Service prescribed burn. Heinrich said he would “absolutely” pursue similar language in any kind of wildfire package the Senate might take up.

The spending deal Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) agreed on this week would invest $1.8 billion over the next decade for “hazardous fuels reduction” on federal land within the wildland-urban interface — activities that would include tree thinning and undergrowth removal. The Forest Service received nearly $3 billion for fuels reduction in the bipartisan infrastructure law. The original, now-defunct Build Back Better bill called for a $10 billion investment in hazardous fuels reduction projects.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) this week said he had to look at the House bill to see if all the provisions are necessary. “There’s certainly need out there, but here’s the deal: We put a bunch of money into forest firefighting. The forest fires are gonna be bad, but that should be already taken care of; we’ve got crop insurance, that should be taken care of,” the appropriator said.

Heavy flooding inundated Yellowstone National Park in June in Montana, resulting in temporary closures.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kellie Lunney in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at; Anna Yukhananov at

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