Tester touts wildfire response bills in Missoula visit

The Montana Standard

by Rob Cheney

Congress could improve wildfire response before, during and after burns if it would get some legislation passed, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said Friday.

Montana’s senior senator, a Democrat, visited the Neptune Aviation hangar with an update on three bills he’s pushing that are designed to change the way the U.S. Forest Service pays for firefighting, how seasonal firefighters can get better job opportunities and how fire-hit communities can get money for rehabilitation and future fire prevention work.

The first bill awaits committee action, the second has passed the Senate but is awaiting a House vote and the third should be introduced to the Senate next week.

The congressional work comes as the 2016 fire season appears headed for trouble. Neptune President Ron Hooper said his retardant-dropping planes flew 540 hours by this date in 2015. This year, they’ve logged about 1,050 hours.

Tester said a bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act that would provide insurance-like emergency funding for Forest Service firefighting expenses was sitting in the Senate Budget Committee.

The measure is a way of paying for forest fires without “fire-borrowing” from the rest of the Forest Service’s annual budget for other activities such as trail maintenance, timber harvest and weed control. Last year, the Forest Service spent 52 percent of its budget fighting fires, compared to 16 percent 20 years ago.

“The frustration I have is we continue to put patches on things but don’t look at the long-term impacts,” Tester said. “We don’t do what we need to do at the federal level to manage our resources better.”

The Land Management Workforce Flexibility Act is a “fix” for a previous Tester bill that was signed into law but hasn’t had the expected effect. The act allows seasonal workers who’ve served their annual 1,039-hour contracts to compete for full-time government jobs with the same status as current full-time workers.

Bob Beckley, a U.S. Forest Service project leader and member of the National Federation of Federal Employees union, said the bill approved last year was misinterpreted by the federal Office of Personnel Management.

“It’s easier to bring these seasonal employees back to compete for full-time positions than it is to train new people,” Beckley said. “These are the supervisors, the engine captains who’ve reached journeyman level. If we can’t give them the opportunity to compete, they’ll go to work for a municipality or a state agency that can give them full-time benefits.”

The new bill Tester expects to introduce in the week before the Senate starts its seven-week summer recess is the Wildfire Mitigation Assistance Act. The bill would allow Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to be used for post-wildfire restoration or salvage work – something that currently doesn’t qualify for that kind of assistance.

Tester said the bills could find a late-year vote in what he called a “fairly active lame-duck session” after Election Day.

“There are a lot of folks in denial that our climate is changing,” Tester said. “We aren’t treating fire any differently than we did in the 1980s. It’s a different fire season than it was in the ‘80s.”