USA — Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced four bills to encourage state and local governments to improve fire-prevention efforts in areas prone to wildfires, to increase federal recovery aid to victims of major disasters, and to require states to create databases to keep track of criminal arsonists.
The risk of catastrophic wildfire for California is not going away, she said. We are a tinder-dry state, we have extended droughts, and global warming is only making the risks greater. Wildfires are more frequent, and they burn hotter and with more intensity. So we must plan in advance to protect homes and communities from these massive fires. We must also do more to help victims of wildfires and other disasters. The four bills in the legislative package are.
Fire Safe Community Act: Establishes incentives for communities at risk of wildfires to adopt a new model fire safe ordinance that will set national standards in building codes, create defensible space around homes, and reduce hazardous fuels. It also includes new federal grants to local communities and increases federal reimbursement of firefighting costs to participating communities;
Mortgage and Rental Disaster Relief Act: Re-institutes a previously discontinued Federal Emergency Management Agency program to help qualified individuals displaced by major disasters make their mortgage payments;
Disaster Rebuilding Assistance Act: Boosts the maximum amount FEMA may provide to qualifying households to pay for temporary housing and home rebuilding costs. FEMA currently provides roughly $28,000 in this assistance. This bill would increase this to $50,000; and;
Matching Arson Through Criminal History (MATCH) Act: Creates a national arson registry, requiring convicted arsonists to report where they live, work and go to school. (Companion bill to H.R. 1759, introduced by Reps. Mary Bono (R-Calif.) and Adam Schiff (D-Calif.).
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is co-sponsor of the Mortgage and Rental Disaster Relief Act, the Disaster Rebuilding Assistance Act, and the MATCH Act.
These bills are the latest actions taken by Feinstein in the wake of the recent wildfires. She and Reps. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) and Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), were instrumental in securing $500 million for emergency fire suppression, risk reduction, and recovery needs required by this years catastrophic fire season. She also was joined by Boxer and several California members of the House to ask top federal officials to streamline the process for replacing passports and other important immigration documents lost in the Southern California wildfires.
The recent wildfires, fueled by strong Santa Ana winds, swept through seven Southern California counties, leaving them disaster areas. The wildfires which at one point spanned from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border killed 10, injured 130, destroyed more than 2,000 homes and inflicted damage estimated to exceed $2 billion.
The 2007 wildfires came four years after similar wildfires devastated Southern California, a region with strong population growth into the wildland-urban interface. The risk of massive losses in the future is high, with an estimated 5 million California homes now in areas known to be prone to wildfires, according to the California Department of Forestry.
Fire Safe Community Act would create a model ordinance for communities at risk of fire located within the Wildland Urban Interface. This bill will direct the National Institute of Standards and Technology to create a model ordinance with the U.S. Fire Administration, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. This ordinance will provide a baseline for communities to become fire safe by including suggested water supply, construction materials and techniques, defensible space, vegetation management, and infrastructure standards.
The act also will develop a $25 million grant program to assist local communities in implementing the activities and policies of the NIST model ordinance. To qualify for this grant, communities must be located in a fire hazard area and take steps toward the implementation of the model ordinance. These grants, administered by FEMA, can be used to enforce local ordinances and codes, develop incentive programs to improve code compliance, educate local planners on fire resistant planning, zoning and home construction, as well as train local fire departments on emerging technologies such as GIS fire mapping. It will provide $15 million in annual grants to states on a 50/50 cost-share basis to create or update fire hazard maps. The act will increase the federal share of firefighting and emergency expenses reimbursed under FEMAs Fire Management Assistance Grants from 75% to 90%.
The bill also would allow the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior to administer grants to local communities for model ordinance compliance and for responsible zoning and fire protection strategies. The Forest Service would administer $35 million in fire-safe grants. The Department of the Interior would administer $15 million in these grants.