The Democratic Staff of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources has prepared a list of concepts, called a White Paper, that potentially could be included in a very broad and far reaching bill that would direct land management agencies in their efforts to manage wildland fires.
Nothing in the document is etched in stone. The next step is for staff members of a handful of Senators to meet, discuss the draft document, and produce a list of surviving concepts that could be expanded upon to be included in the proposed legislation. Then those items will be fleshed out in a language that would be appropriate for the bill. The expectation is that the legislation will be introduced by Senator Maria Cantwell in a few weeks.
Having Congress produce a long list of rules or requirements about how wildland fire agencies will conduct their routine business is new to me. While it is common for a Senator or Representative to loudly express their opinion about how land should be managed, and sometimes produce legislation when Congress can actually function, for them to write a lengthly guidebook for wildfire is, to be frank, TERRIFYING.
The intent of the soon to be written legislation, as we understand it, is not that Congress will write a bunch of very detailed rules, but the legislation will require that the Forest Service and the Department of Interior agencies write the rules that will be mentioned in general terms in the legislation.
There could be some good to come out of this. For example, I understand that Senator Maria Cantwell has opened the door to including language in the bill that would revise or repeal Public Law 107-203 that was passed in 2002 as a knee-jerk reaction to the ThirtyMile Fire the previous year. That horrendous law resulted in a crewboss on that fire being charged with 11 felonies, including four counts of manslaughter. Since then firefighters that witness accidents have been advised to lawyer-up and reveal as little as possible about what they know, reducing the opportunities for learning lessons — possibly resulting in more firefighter fatalities down the road.
However, companies that sell professional liability insurance to firefighters are raking in the dough. I am going to suggest to the Committee that the bill include language similar to that in 10 U.S.C. 2254(d), which gives military personnel some protection from prosecution if they provide information about an aircraft accident.
What ideas do you have about the concepts in this White Paper, or, what SHOULD be in wildfire legislation? If you leave a comment before June 22, 2015, there will be a better chance of it being seen by people in D.C., (some of whom have been known to visit this website) — and who knows, it may have an influence on the final outcome.