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Chair Spanberger Opening Statement at Hearing on 2020 Wildfires

WASHINGTON- House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry Chair Abigail Spanberger of Virginia delivered the following statement at today’s hearing on 2020 wildfires, response and recovery.

[As Prepared for Delivery]

“Thank you for joining us here in Washington and online today for this critical hearing on the wildfires ravaging the Western United States.  We’ve all seen the footage from California, Oregon and Washington. It is surreal, and it is terrifying. I want to talk today about what we can do to meet the needs and face the challenges presented by this unprecedented wildfire season out West and elsewhere.

“Deputy Chief Phipps, thank you for joining us today for this important discussion. I appreciate everything that you and the Forest Service did to accommodate our request on short notice, and I do not want to take more than the minimum of your focus away from the important work happening to fight wildfires in communities across the country.

“The Forest Service recently lost one of its own fighting a wildfire in southern California.  I ask that before we continue, we pause for a moment of silence for him, and for all of those we have lost to wildfires this year.

“As we speak, there are over 70 large fires raging across 5 million acres in the southeast, south, Rocky Mountains, pacific northwest, and California. For some perspective, that is the equivalent of 5 million football fields, 1 million Major League Baseball fields, or 2.5 million typical city blocks that are burning.

“There are more than 31,000 firefighters and support personnel on the ground waging this battle. We have to keep their safety and their needs foremost in our minds.

“We even have firefighting staff from Canada and Mexico supporting the heroic efforts of US Forest staff who are working under very dangerous and trying circumstances — in addition to a public health crisis unlike anything we have seen in a hundred years.  Our communities are trying to manage wildfire evacuations during COVID-19 and protect the electric grid during extreme heat and wildfire, among other challenges.

“Yet, as unprecedented as this moment is, I am reminded of another moment in our nation’s history when Americans also faced great uncertainty and hardship. During the 1930s, at the height of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl that ravaged the Great Plains and much of the United States, there was a sense that Congress did not understand the severity of the problems facing America’s farmers and families living in the midst of an environmental crisis. Despite demands for action by both the administration and those impacted by the dust storms, for years, Congress failed to act in a comprehensive manner.

“It was not until March of 1935, when the dust from the Midwest reached the Capitol’s steps and lawmakers were forced to see it and experience it with their own eyes, that compromise could be reached on what became the first federal conservation bill, the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act of 1936. In the three years that followed its passage soil erosion dropped by more than 20%. I can only imagine what hardship could have been averted had Congress acted when they first understood that there was a crisis brewing for Americans across the Great Plains.

“I want to be clear to all those here and listening virtually today. It should not take the ash of these wildfires, or the debris and flood waters of the hurricanes ravaging our coasts, or the severe heat felt by millions across the nation and across the globe on a daily basis, reaching the Capitol’s steps today, for this Congress to take action on the environmental crisis currently facing us.

“Climate change is real, it is here, and a failure of this or any committee in Congress to take action will have real, human costs.

“Still, I do not mean to suggest that there are not other factors that have contributed to these or other recent wildfires. We know that many factors are involved in the current wildfires and our wildfire risk. That certainly includes encroachment of housing and development on forested wildlands; forest management decisions and resources; fire management; weather events like the historic lightning storm that struck California in august; actions of people, like use of pyrotechnic devices; and the list unfortunately continues.

“I expect that after this fire year, we will look to learn from what has happened, have a robust policy debate, and do everything in our power to prevent such a drastic situation from happening in the future. Today, we’re here to work together on the emergencies that face us right now. That is part of what I most enjoy about this subcommittee, we focus on how we can work together on behalf of our constituents.

“This subcommittee is here to learn about what is happening since we last spoke in July about the 2020 wildfire season, what you expect may happen as it continues, and to explore how we can work with you to protect our communities from wildfires this season.

“I look forward to that discussion, and our continued work together on issues related to the U.S. Forest Service.  I also look forward to discussions about how we can continue our important work with you through the farm bill and annual funding cycle to ensure the health and resilience of our national forests, which are economic drivers in small communities across the country. Thank you.”

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