Severe Wildfire Season Predicted for Pacific Northwest – Cantwell Asks About Preparations, Highlights Need for New Technologies

2020 wildfire outlook already drawing comparisons to devastating 2015 season; Washington State Forester testifies on state’s preparations; Cantwell: Pacific Northwest “in the bullseye” of challenging fire season forecast

WASHINGTON, D.C. – As the Pacific Northwest prepares for a severe wildfire season this summer, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) pressed witnesses at a Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing today about preparations and how new technologies can better be implemented to assist firefighting efforts. George Geissler, the Washington State Forester, testified at the hearing about the state’s preparations

“There is a lot to be done to get ready for this fire season,” Cantwell said. “For the state of Washington, and I would say the whole Pacific Northwest, we are in the bullseye of what is likely to be a very challenging fire season.”

Referring to maps of the wildland fire season outlook prepared by the National Interagency Fire Center displayed behind her at the hearing (and linked to below), Cantwell said:

“The only worse map that I think I saw… is the 2015 fire season map, and we know that ended up being one of the worst fire seasons in the history of our state.”

In 2015, over 1,500 wildfires in Washington state burned more than one million acres, costing more than $250 million and leading the Washington State Department of Natural Resources to call it the “worst-ever” fire season.

In a question for Geissler, U.S. Forest Service Deputy Chief of State and Private Forestry John Phipps, and U.S. Department of the Interior Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary Amanda Kaster, Cantwell asked about new technologies that could be used to assist firefighting efforts in states around the country – something Cantwell has strongly advocated for years.

“The National Weather Service satellite technology can detect fires at an early stage, and so that’s one of the ways… for us to find fire starts right away,” Cantwell said. “Is the Forest Service and Department of the Interior aware of this Weather Service satellite technology, and are states using it? Is there something else that the Forest Service needs to take this technology and get it deployed for this fire season?”

Geissler supported the importance of satellite and other technologies to assist wildland firefighters: “That is actually a project very near and dear to my heart… it’s being used very effectively with the Oklahoma Forest Service right now. It is technology whereby the weather service can detect the fires and notify the state fire folks where they’re located, or where the potential is, and it happens every five minutes that they’re looking at it.”

In his response, Phipps also spoke to the importance of new technologies and highlighted a new system that should be available to wildland firefighters in time for the upcoming wildfire season: “There’s something that we’re developing that should be available in the next couple of weeks – it’s called Safe Fire – to try to get a better idea on the conditions, how much potential an individual fire would have so we can better triage putting resources, putting them in the right mix, at the right time, at the right place, to keep the fires that have the potential from getting large.”

In March 2019, Cantwell’s bipartisan Wildfire Management Technology Advancement Act was signed into law. The bill will increase firefighter safety by requiring the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior to provide the best available technology to fight fires, was signed into law. It also includes the use of GPS locators for crews on wildfires, the use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems to scout out and map wildfires in real time, and the assignment of smoke forecasters to every large fire.

In December 2019, Cantwell worked with her colleagues to secure a $1.6 billion increase in funding for wildland management, and in 2018 she secured passage of language to fix the chronic failures in wildfire funding that had long plagued fire-prone communities across the west. She has repeatedly called on officials to make combating wildfires and protecting firefighters a top priority, including as preparations for the 2020 wildfire season continue amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

A map of the 2020 wildfire season outlook is available HERE and a 2015 map is available HERE.

Video of Senator Cantwell’s Q&A with witnesses is available HERE and audio is HERE.

Video of Senator Cantwell introducing Geissler is available HERE and audio is HERE.