Over the past few months, catastrophic wildfires raged – once again – throughout Central Washington and across the West. Smoke blanketed the Pacific Northwest, and whole towns were essentially wiped off the map.
Unfortunately, we are not strangers to the devastation of catastrophic wildfires. This year, in the midst of a global pandemic that already put strain on our local economy and agriculture industry, the damages seem even greater. While the fires may no longer be burning here at home, the impacts on our communities remain.
I recently visited Okanogan County, where I toured some of the damage from the Cold Springs Fire. The Cold Springs Fire claimed homes, community structures like the Omak Mill, and – most tragically – the life of a one-year-old child and his unborn sibling.
We ended the tour at T3 Ranch, where the Townsend Family and community volunteers stored fire recovery supplies that were donated from as far away as North Dakota, proving to me, once again, that in the face of catastrophe, Central Washington remains resilient.
In the aftermath of these disasters, our communities are coming together to rebuild and recover with the hope that the federal government will hear their pleas for action and – finally – reform our land management practices to protect the homes, businesses, and communities across the West that face this threat every year.
The Washington state congressional delegation has supported requests for federal disaster declarations in counties across the state, but the facts are clear: Rural communities are disadvantaged when it comes to accessing federal disaster funds.
In years past, Washington state and many counties in our district have been granted Public Assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to support emergency work and repair of public facilities. However, our small, rural communities have been denied Individual Assistance that would help families and businesses directly recover and rebuild homes and businesses they have lost.
That is why I have worked with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to reform our disaster funding criteria, so that local impacts of disasters are taken into account and rural communities across the country are treated fairly.
Despite this disadvantage, people of the communities I have visited in the wake of this year’s wildfires remain full of hope and are looking toward the future.
While in Okanogan County, I hosted a Wildfire Recovery Roundtable with local elected officials, tribes, and community leaders to discuss ways the federal government can work with those on the ground to both rebuild and prevent these disasters from devastating our communities.
The roundtable confirmed what I and many of my colleagues in Congress understand: Healthy, resilient forests and grasslands are the key to wildfire prevention.
Decades of mismanagement, misguided environmental policies, and lackluster forestry and grazing practices have led to forests and grasslands that act as tinder for wildfires, just waiting to be set ablaze each summer. We cannot continue to sit idly by. We have to responsibly log our forests and graze our lands, or we will watch them burn.
Since coming to Congress, I have strongly supported legislation to improve land management practices on public lands, allowing federal, state, and local managers to increase the resiliency of our forests and grasslands. The federal government has made progress, but there is much more work to do.
I have seen firsthand how citizens, volunteers, local organizations, and government entities work together to revive our communities, rebuild our fallen structures, and actively work to prevent future devastation. Just as Central Washington remains committed to wildfire recovery efforts, I remain committed to supporting them in Congress and advancing federal wildfire prevention measures.