A view of transmission towers in flames as Corral Fire continues in San Joaquin County, Calif., on June 2.

A view of transmission towers in flames as Corral Fire continues in San Joaquin County, Calif., on June 2. Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu via Getty Images

Lawmakers unveil a new plan to revamp federal wildfire prevention and mitigation

The Modernizing Wildfire Safety and Prevention Act would create a new Middle Fire Leaders Academy to rapidly bolster the ranks of federal wildland firefighters.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers on Tuesday introduced new legislation aimed at revamping how the federal government responds to wildfires, including better benefits and work-life balance for firefighters and a new training program aimed at increasing their numbers.

The Modernizing Wildfire Safety and Prevention Act (H.R. 8656), introduced by Reps. Josh Harder, D-Calif., Scott Franklin, R-Fla., and Joe Neguse, D-Colo., implements recommendations from the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission as outlined in the panel’s September 2023 report.

The bill takes a four-prong approach to improving the federal response to wildfires: workforce development, improved support for federal firefighters, public health and mitigation technology.

The measure would create a new Middle Fire Leaders Academy, aimed to rapidly train and certify “wildfire and beneficial fire leaders,” as well as a new program to award grants to educational and vocational training institutions who conduct wildland firefighting training.

In an effort to improve federal firefighter retention, the legislation includes provisions extending wildland firefighters’ break in service provision to two years, thereby making it easier for firefighters to maintain eligibility for their more generous retirement benefits. It also authorizes the Interior Department to develop a Wildland Fire Management Casualty Assistance Program to help families of federal firefighters who were injured or have died.

Other provisions would establish a federal smoke monitoring system to provide real-time information and forecasts on how wildfires may affect air quality, develop risk maps to forecast where fires might break out and creates a new Joint Office of the Fire Environment Center within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to monitor potential wildfires and manage the government’s response.

“Last week, a wildfire came within a mile of my home,” said Harder in a statement. “More than 14,000 acres burned and 400 firefighters risked their lives to contain it. We no longer have a wildfire season in California—it’s a year-round crisis. We cannot wait another day to tackle this threat. Alongside our bipartisan partners, we’ve put together a first-of-its-kind, comprehensive bill to finally fight this crisis head-on.”

“As a father of a wildland firefighter, I’m pleased to join Reps. Harder and Neguse to modernize and innovate our approach to wildfire management,” Franklin said. “This comprehensive package will invest in new wildfire mitigation technologies and ensure permanent solutions to current and future workforce challenges.”

The bill quickly garnered support from a variety of employee organizations, environmental and industry groups.

“This legislation is a comprehensive and sensible approach to how the federal government should respond to the evolving wildfire crisis,” said Randy Erwin, national president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, which represents around 10,000 federal wildland firefighters. “Experts from the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission laid out their recommendations, and now is the time to put these strategies into action. This legislation will greatly impact recruitment and retention of skilled personnel, with critical support mechanisms for the wellbeing of wildland firefighters at the forefront of this crisis. It will also equip the workforce with the necessary technologies and resources to safely protect our communities from wildfires.”