October 26, 2021

Chairs DeFazio, Titus Statements from Hearing to Examine FEMA’s Assistance Programs’ Ability to Help Before, During, and After Wildfires

Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Chair of the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management Dina Titus (D-NV) during today’s hearing titled, “Are FEMA’s Assistance Programs Adequately Designed to Assist Communities Before, During, and After Wildfire?”

Video of opening remarks from Chairs DeFazio and Titus are here and here.

More information on the hearing can be found here.

Chair DeFazio:

Thank you Chair Titus and thank you to our witnesses for being with us today. In particular, I’d like to thank Andrew Phelps, the Director of the Oregon Office of Emergency Management who is joining us as a witness. His leadership has been critical in responding to the growing number of natural disasters that have impacted the state of Oregon in recent years. 

The issues we’ll be discussing are critical for states like mine that experience wildfires. Climate change and an expanding wildland urban interface are causing wildfires to inflict an unprecedented amount of damage to the natural and built environment. 

Oregon understands the gravity of this issue all too well. In 2020, Oregon experienced the most devastating wildfire season in our state’s recent history. More than 5,000 structures across the state were damaged, including thousands of homes in low-income communities. Tens of thousands of Oregonians were forced to evacuate and, tragically, nine people lost their lives. I remain committed to helping Oregonians though the long recovery process in the wake of these fires.

The recovery process in Oregon has highlighted the importance of FEMA’s assistance programs and making sure they are designed to meet the needs of wildfire survivors. I am grateful for FEMA’s tireless work in Oregon and across the U.S. to help disaster-impacted communities recover. However, the growing number and severity of wildfires and their impact, particularly in the West, makes it necessary to reevaluate whether FEMA’s programs are doing enough to support local communities.

In the last year alone, FEMA has provided assistance to states experiencing wildfires by issuing 33 Fire Management Assistance Grants or F-MAGs and 5 Major Disaster Declarations. F-MAGs provide wildfire suppression assistance to states so they can stop fires before they become Major Disasters.

This high number of declarations causes us to ask the question, “what can we do to protect our communities from these fires?” The answer is to invest in mitigation efforts. Mitigation is a commonsense way to save lives and property, and it’s cost effective. That’s why I strongly support finding ways to expand funding for mitigation projects at the local and individual level.

After a F-MAG or Major Disaster Declaration, states are eligible for Hazard Mitigation Grants or HMGP. However, local stakeholders have told me that it is challenging to use HMGP funds for wildfire mitigation projects. As I said previously, mitigation is the key to reducing the devastating impact these disasters have upon communities. Investing in defensible space around a home can be the difference between a family’s home being saved and being burned to the ground. We must make sure that HMGP and other federal mitigation grants are designed to accommodate the type of mitigation needed to protect communities from wildfires.

As Chair Titus mentioned in her statement, I am pleased to have introduced the Resilient AMERICA package. The improvements to hazard mitigation that this legislation provides will help individuals and communities make the investments in mitigation that are needed to combat natural hazards.

While mitigation efforts can reduce the impact of wildfires, they cannot eliminate it completely. That’s why it is also vital that relief programs are meeting the needs of survivor’s post-fire.

In September of 2020, I was proud to pass the FEMA Assistance Relief Act. This bill reduces the financial burden on states and communities after natural disasters. I am eager to continue this work and evaluate the F-MAG program to consider how amendments may reduce the financial burden our communities face after a wildfire.

In May of this year, myself, Chair Titus, Ranking Member Graves, and Ranking Member Webster sent a letter to FEMA raising concern regarding denial rates for FEMA’s Individual Assistance program and increasing instances of fraud. I plan to work with FEMA to resolve these issues and safeguard qualifying applicant’s access to assistance.

Once again, thank you to our witnesses for joining us today. I look forward to hearing your testimony and learning from your local experience.  

Chair Titus:

I’d like to welcome everyone to today’s hearing and thank our witnesses for joining us to discuss whether the Stafford Act and the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) response, recovery, and mitigation programs are designed to help communities before, during, and following wildfire.

While Southern Nevada doesn’t have the same magnitude of risk for wildfire as elsewhere, the state has certainly had similar experiences further north as our neighbors in California, Oregon, and Washington.

All Western states have seen record-setting wildfires in recent years. Drought conditions have resulted in forests ready to explode—whether from a lightning bolt, errant campfire spark, utility lines being interrupted by trees, or an arsonist’s match.

As our witnesses note in their testimony, wildfire season starts earlier and finishes later. Fires burn hotter, larger, and longer.

Fall storms—like those bringing welcome precipitation to the west this week—arrive later and are less helpful in extinguishing still raging infernos.

And we see that FEMA is providing an unprecedented number of Fire Management Assistance Grants to states in order to provide much needed federal assistance for fire suppression costs.

While I’m sure our witnesses would rather not be experts in all things related to wildfire, they represent states and communities that have been, or currently are, devastated by these destructive and often deadly events.

The subcommittee looks forward to hearing about their experiences—successes and frustrations—in responding to, recovering from, and mitigating against these firestorms.

My hope is that today’s hearing will provide a clearer picture as to whether FEMA’s disaster and mitigation assistance programs are flexible enough to address the wildfire challenges currently faced by western states.

While the west’s monstrous fire complexes have received the largest amount of media attention in recent years, forested states in the southeast are experiencing wildfires with increasing frequency, as well.

What changes may be necessary to ensure that federal recovery programs—whether they be under FEMA or the Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Community Development Block Grant—Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) program—meet the needs in the wake of wildfires as they do for other disasters such as tornadoes, floods, and hurricanes?

What does recovery look like one, two, or three years post fire?

How have survivors fared? Are housing needs being met in a timely way, or are they just picking up and leaving? Do they have access to the crisis counseling and mental health services they may need after experiencing their lives and livelihoods go up in smoke?

A consistent thread across all of our FEMA-related oversight seems to be a burdensome bureaucracy. What red tape might Congress be able to cut with statutory changes? What regulations or policies might FEMA need to revisit to ensure it is fully considering needs of communities post-fire? Are there opportunities for a more unified federal approach to recovery?

The committee is scheduled to take up legislation at mark-up tomorrow that will provide some additional relief for recipients of F-MAGs: a bill to establish that 75 percent federal share is the minimum and that FEMA must work to establish criteria for when the federal share increases for fires of a certain magnitude.

Additionally, in the Resilient AMERICA package introduced by myself along with Chair DeFazio, Ranking Member Graves, and Ranking Member Webster, there are provisions to boost resources for pre-disaster mitigation including: providing assistance for communities interested in updating their building codes to reflect the latest hazard resistant designs, establishing a pilot block grant program so that states interested in assisting residents in the wildland urban interface enhance defensible space around their property, or installing fire-resistant building materials to reduce risks.

I once again thank our witnesses for joining us today to share their perspectives and experiences. I am grateful for your testimony and look forward to our discussion.