(CN) – With Northern California’s brutal October wildfires nearly contained after burning 245,000 acres, destroying over 8,400 buildings and claiming 42 lives, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California called on her Capitol Hill colleagues on Tuesday to hike funding for wildfire suppression and disaster relief.
Many Californians who lost everything in the wildfires in Napa, Solano, Sonoma, Mendocino and Yuba counties will turn to disaster relief agencies for help, and state and federal representatives are hoping to rapidly speed funding along. But Harris called for swift passage of the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, a measure that will update existing spending limits to address the tremendous cost of wildfires in California and across the West.
The cost of California’s October fires will exceed $1 billion. The act’s funding for the last fiscal year totaled $1.2 billion, with fire suppression accounting for about half that amount.
“California is resilient and we will rebuild, but we need help,” Harris, a Democrat, said. “We must pass the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act. Today, over half of the United States Forest Service budget is dedicated to combating wildfires compared to just 13 percent of the budget in 1993.”
Under the current language of the act, funding would be calculated using a rolling 10-year average of disaster relief. It would also increase funding for firefighting efforts incrementally to nearly $2.7 billion by 2025 – more than twice what was spent last year.
Harris said her office is working with FEMA, Housing and Urban Development, the Small Business Association and U.S. Department of Agriculture to ensure Californians affected by the disaster will receive aid. Harris also called on Congress to address the affordable housing shortage in California through funding of block grants and Section 8 programs.
Gov. Jerry Brown signed an executive order last week to speed up recovery efforts through bypassing zoning restrictions and ensuring critical government offices would remain open.
Harris told her colleagues climate change is a leading cause of wildfires in the western states.
“Let’s recognize the connection between these disasters and climate change,” Harris said. “California is leading the way and preparing for increasing wildfires, but the federal government needs to do its part. In the 1980’s, wildfires burned under 25 acres on average. Now, typical wildfires will burn over 100 acres.”
By removing dead trees in California – over 100 million in the Golden State and 6.3 billion across the West – Harris believes fires could be reduced while increasing jobs. In California, logging restrictions have been blamed for creating overgrown, unhealthy forests that contribute to the severity of wildfires and limit earning potential for many residents. Recent drought conditions exacerbated the problem, and the dead trees now act as kindling for wildfires.
“Natural disasters from fires to hurricanes to floods do not discriminate by region or by party. We must help each other when these travesties hit, but also we must prepare for the future,” Harris said. “I would suggest and urge our colleagues to pass the supplemental bill and future emergency resources, ensure that federal agencies deliver prompt help on the ground, and pass the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act.”
Harris and fellow Sen. Dianne Feinstein confirmed that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents will suspend operations in the fire-ravaged regions, allowing undocumented immigrants access to federal resources. Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Elaine Duke agreed to inform Harris when immigration enforcement would resume.
“It is our belief and it is our understanding as Californians that notice will be clear when this effort will end in terms of not enforcing immigration, and we want to be clear when it’s going to start so that we can tell Californians. Because right now they are trusting DHS’s word that this immigration enforcement has been suspended,” Harris said.
The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act is part of a supplemental spending bill in upcoming budgetary decisions. Currently, no vote is scheduled.