Oregon Senators partner to urge Air National Guard to quickly train members to fight wildfires

The senators secured $7 million in the 2018 spending bill to expand western states’ firefighting resources

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Oregon’s U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley, who serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Ron Wyden today partnered to urge the director of the Air National Guard to rapidly begin wildfire training for National Guard members, after the senators secured both authorization in the 2018 defense bill and funding in the 2018 spending bill to provide states like Oregon the firefighting resources they need to respond to catastrophic wildfires.

In a letter to Lieutenant General L. Scott Rice, the senators wrote, “You cannot fight a fire without firefighters. Throughout last year’s devastating fire season, shortages of trained firefighters severely hampered fire suppression efforts at the very moment when they were most needed. We know already that the men and women of the National Guard are brave, disciplined, and committed to protecting our communities. Training our National Guard service members now will mean a quicker and more effective response to severe wildfires.”

In September 2017, at the request of Oregon Governor Kate Brown, Wyden led the effort — with Merkley a cosponsor — to successfully include a provision in the defense bill that authorized federal funding for training members of the National Guard to fight wildfires. The provision is especially important in states like Oregon, which last year experienced a record-breaking wildfire season.

Using his seat on the Appropriations Committee, Merkley, with Wyden’s support, led the effort to secure $7 million for provision in the 2018 spending bill, which was signed into law on March 23.

With both authorization and funding secured, both senators are concerned that this vital funding is not being used quickly enough.

“Last year nearly 71,500 fires burned 10 million acres across the country, making it one of the worst, and most expensive, fire seasons on record. In Oregon alone, 2,049 fires burned 714,520 acres during the 2017 fire season,” the senators wrote. “A combination of drier than normal conditions in Oregon and a poor snowpack suggests that 2018 could be a similarly severe fire season. We know how devastating these fires can be on our communities, our economy, and our health. We must make every effort to get ahead of the curve as best we can.”

Find the full letter below.

Lieutenant General L. Scott Rice

Director, Air National Guard

The Pentagon, Washington, D.C.

Dear General Rice,

We write to strongly urge you to initiate wildfire training for National Guard members as soon as possible. As fires seasons last longer and become more severe it is imperative that our nation moves quickly to expand our firefighting capacity and our National Guard members are critical in that effort.

The National Defense Authorization Act of 2018 included a provision that we fought for to authorize federal funding for states to train their Guard members for wildfire response. The law prioritizes funding to states with the most federal forest lands – states that were hardest hit by last year’s record-breaking wildfire season. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 included $7 million to support these efforts. We urge you to begin making these funds available as soon as possible to ensure states like Oregon will have resources on the ground to respond to catastrophic wildfire.

Last year nearly 71,500 fires burned 10 million acres across the country, making it one of the worst, and most expensive, fire seasons on record. In Oregon alone, 2,049 fires burned 714,520 acres during the 2017 fire season. A combination of drier than normal conditions in Oregon and a poor snowpack suggests that 2018 could be similarly severe fire season. We know how devastating these fires can be on our communities, our economy, and our health. We must make every effort to get ahead of the curve as best we can.

You cannot fight a fire without firefighters and throughout last year’s devastating fire season, shortages of trained firefighters severely hampered fire suppression efforts at the very moment when they were most critical. We know already that the men and women of the National Guard are brave, disciplined, and committed to protecting our communities. Training our National Guard service members now will mean a quicker and more effective response to severe wildfires.

The training process will take time and fire season is rapidly approaching, making the quick disbursement of this funding all the more critical.

###