Tester to Introduce Bill to Help Protect Communities Devastated by Wildfires

Legislation will help hard-hit areas fund disaster mitigation efforts

In an effort to help more Montana communities after disaster strikes, Senator Jon Tester will be introducing new bipartisan legislation that would provide hazard mitigation resources to communities trying to recover from wildfires and prevent future natural disasters.

“We have seen the catastrophic impacts of wildfires across Montana and we must do more to prevent them and reduce their devastation,” Tester said. “We know that a wildfire doesn’t end when the flames stop burning. This bill will provide additional resources to restore land after a wildfire sweeps through, preventing future disasters.”

Tester’s Wildfire Mitigation Assistance Act would provide FEMA funding to communities recovering from certain major wildfires so they can take steps like building erosion barriers, restoring burned land, and improving drainage to help prevent flooding. Major wildfires leave behind barren, charred soil that is unable to absorb water from rainfall, which can dramatically increase the threat of flooding and landslides.

“I can tell you from first-hand experience how important this bill would be to our community,” Jeff Gates, former Disaster and Emergency Services Coordinator for Musselshell County, said. “70,000 acres of forest burned down during the 2012 fire season, destroying more than 200 buildings and leaving dozens homeless. We had very little financial assistance in the aftermath-we were relying on private donations and volunteers to get these residents back on their feet-so we certainly couldn’t afford any mitigation programs. This left us in a really vulnerable position the next year, when we experienced more than a dozen flash floods and numerous mudslides in many of the same areas that had been burned to the ground the year before. So residents of Roundup know better than most how important mitigation funding is.”

The Wildfire Mitigation Assistance Act would also provide resources to help further reduce fuels after a wildfire.

“Mitigation is an essential part of wildfire response and prevention,” Dan Dennehy, Director of Emergency Management for Butte-Silver Bow said. “So this bill is critically important to those of us here in Butte, because when you live in a city surrounded by dead trees due to the pine beetle infiltration, it’s not a question of whether a wildfire will spark, it’s a matter a when.”

Federal hazard mitigation funding is currently only available to areas that have been declared “major disasters,” and only a small percentage of fires are designated this way. Most major wildfires impacting nonfederal lands are addressed using Fire Management Assistance Grants (FMAG), which only provide resources to fight wildfires but don’t provide mitigation costs after a fire.

So Tester’s bill will provide local governments with federal hazard mitigation funding following a FMAG designation.

“After receiving an FMAG to help address the cost of fighting the Lolo Creek Complex Fire back in 2013, we received several requests for mitigation assistance,” Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss said. “The County had some local funds to help with this but, as always, the need outstripped the available funding. If Senator Tester’s bill had been around back then, Missoula County and its residents would have been able to apply for mitigation funding to help supplement local dollars to help create defensible space around their homes and businesses.”

Tester is introducing the bill along with Senator Michael Bennet (D-Colo.). Organizations that have endorsed Tester’s Wildfire Mitigation Assistance Act include:

• National Association of Counties
• International Association of Emergency Managers
• International Association of Fire Chiefs
• International Association of Fire Fighters
• National Emergency Management Association
• National Fire Protection Association
• National Volunteer Fire Council

You can access more information about Tester’s Western Wildfire Initiative HERE